Today while I was conducting a commercial session I decided to run a quick test. I wanted to compare my work camera, the Canon 1DX using Sigma’s new Art 50mm Lens against my Fuji X100S with the TCL X100 teleconverter attached. Both images were shot using the same studio strobes and modifiers. Camera settings on both units was ISO 200, 1/160th shutter speed, f6.3. Obviously both focal lengths were 50mm.
For those who may be sneaky, I’ve removed the EXIF data. It’s quite remarkable what the little Fuji paired with the TCL X100 can do. After all it’s only about a $6,049.00 difference at suggested retail! Smile or no smile, which is which?
My X100S and the TCL X100 (yes I made the little Fuji look crummy on purpose!)
I own a Fuji X100S and formerly owned their X100. For my commercial work it is a remarkable tool for the right situation. I use the X100S for personal use since it has so many features I enjoy. I normally don’t write reviews until I’ve had whatever I’m reviewing for a few months, but in this case I’m making an exception. I ordered and purchased my TCL-100 off Amazon through a third party retailer at the street price of 349.00. I had seen retailers from Japan selling the unit prior to its release, but was not willing to pay what they were asking. Although my X100S is silver I really didn’t care that the lens for sale was black. I’ve purposely made my little Fuji look crummy with gaff and grip tape. My clients laugh whenever I bring it out on a commercial shoot. They call it “Mark’s little beat up instamatic,” but after seeing the results never complain about its use for their work.
In late January 2014 I was contacted by Cristine Kelly, the Marketing Director for Music in the Mountains, a symphonic company nestled in the gorgeous foothills of Nevada City, CA. Cristine, or more accurately her husband had found my work while searching the web for his Christmas present from Cristine, a Fuji X100S. I had written a short article about using the Fuji in some of my commercial work. He saw the imagery I had created for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and yelled down to Cristine, “Honey, you need to look at this. I think this is the guy you’ve been searching for to shoot your Company!”
Cristine wanted her new Season Brochure to reflect the beauty of the surrounding area, so we discussed an on location shoot with costumes for the various performances her Company had planned for their upcoming season. Orchestras around the country are discovering that the ‘tried and true’ (I refer to that style as “Tired and Yawning”) photography, be it stock or shot for their specific needs, requires change to remain relevant. Rather than performance photos of musician’s clad in tuxedos and evening gowns, publicity imagery for music should reflect the emotionit conveys rather than what musician’s look like when they play. For most patrons, they know what they will see once they arrive. What they go for is for what they’ll experience and FEEL. Transmitting the feeling of an aural piece into something visual was my job.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-15 Season Brochure
In order to put an entire marketing campaign together it first takes vision. The Marketing VP at Dallas Symphony Orchestra had a very specific vision for his 2014-15 Season Brochure. His concept was to carry a “Date Night” theme throughout his brochure, creating an experience which would attract new as well as existing patrons. He also wanted a theatrical and dream like quality to the individual performances, one that matched each symphonic piece.
Keep in mind that whenever you’re hired to create commercial imagery there is quite a bit at stake. Beyond your own reputation, there’s the talent, scheduling, venue logistics, graphics gurus, administrative help, travel, blah, blah blah. And although an Art Director may have a specific shot they have in their own minds, it’s up to the photographer to execute that vision, one that often only exists in the AD’s mind.
I’m always surprised how the majority of posts on photography forums focus primarily on ‘gear’ and ‘which is better.’ It’s as if most people are vapor locked on what type of gear they purchase rather than improving their own skills. Yes, we all wish to improve our craft in creating images and gear is a part of that equation, but the amount of effort and discussion seems to focus on the exact opposite of what would improve one’s own creation of photos. If the amount of effort on gear was placed into other areas, ah but I digress….
Like most photographers be they pro or amateur, all of us know the excitement of getting what we think is a great shot and the desire to share it as soon as possible. In this digital age that means displaying your work through some sort of social media or other form of immediate gratification.
But in the commercial photography world, immediate gratification takes a back seat to business needs and NDAs. So much of what we shoot commercially is shot with extended lead times to be of any value. Marketing materials are carefully planned months or in some cases years in advance. As such, once the shots are in the bag it’s up to the client to decide on the imagery’s strategic timing for public release. And because of that we’re not allowed to display those images on our own sites or through social media. And by the time the images are released publicly we’ve been on to other projects for months. Whenever I receive a client’s marketing materials, I’ve often forgot that I shot that session!
I have two separate client sessions in this article. One was for Dallas Symphony Orchestra and another was for Village Theatre’s publicity for Les Miserables.
Dallas Symphony’s Beets Campaign
The photos I display here were taken in July 2013 and released to the public in late Fall of 2013, about four months after I shot the “Beets Campaign” (Beethoven Festival) for Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Performances begin April 28 2014, almost 9 full months from when I originally shot the session.
About two months prior to the shoot, the VP of Marketing along with some of the Marketing staff and I began a conversation about the overall look, feel and messaging they wished to achieve with the imagery. Rather than presenting musician’s in tuxedos playing music, the VP wanted a much more ‘scandalous’ look, one that coincided with the public’s reaction to Beethoven’s music in that actual time period. When written and performed his music was actually quite scandalous to the audience of that time. Music is all about emotion and the VP wanted a reaction to his campaign that would evoke emotion…and boy it certainly did and in a very good way!
We agreed that on location sessions would be much more effective than shooting the talent in front of seamless and then dropping them into graphics treatments. On location (I refer to them as ‘onlo’) is my favorite type of publicity shooting. Why? Well it forces me to be creative in developing the imagery by not counting on graphics folks to make the imagery have production value. The right location with the right lighting has a richness that just can’t quite be replicated with graphics. Well at least that’s my opinion… Plus I have to be both patient and think quickly on my feet about what the client wants and how I will execute it. The client developed Mood Boards and sent them to me so we could begin discussions on exactly the mood we wished to create for the campaign.
Most non pros have the impression that commercial shooters are able to scout locations months or weeks in advance and carefully plan out the angles, lighting and time of day to shoot. For me that happens on rare occasions and when that happens it’s a true luxury. But in this case the VP simply said, “I’d like to shoot it over at the AT&T Center, I like the juxtapose of a modern building combined with period piece costumes we’re using. We can look around at the locations when you get here.” For all of these shots I had about ten minutes to scout each location around the building and then decide how I was going to light them and shoot them. Should I use natural light? Which camera will be the best for this job? If I need more contrast how many negative reflectors should I use? Do I want motion blur in the image, if so should I drag the shutter or use second curtain sync with a Speedlight? What gels if any do I need to match the ambient? Oh I’m shooting in front of windows, how will I place the light/reflectors/etc. so I don’t get reflections or bounce off the windows I don’t want? (No I’m not of the school that all those things can be ‘corrected’ in post. Getting it right in camera is my preferred method) ALL of these decisions are made quickly because we don’t often if ever have the luxury of time. If you’ve never been ‘the talent’ or the art director, try getting IN FRONT of the camera and you’ll see what YOU consider to be a short amount of time while you are making your adjustments can seem like an eternity to your subject.
Beethoven Festival Brochure Mailer
Shot with a single PCB Einstein through a 52″ parabolic reflector
Five PCB Einsteins used to light this. Key light shot through a 12×12′ scrim off to camera right.
A single Canon Speedlight shot through a 61″ parabolic to obtain the motion blur using second curtain sync
Four PCB Einsteins used. One beauty dish to camera left, one Einstein to camera right in order to illuminate her hair and two key lights to camera right. Keeping reflections off the windows here was key.
Original shot for building banner. Shot with a Fuji X100S, a single Einstein through at 51″ parabolic high specular modifier.
18×80 foot building banner
Les Miserables Publicity
This publicity session was what I called my “First Date” with this client for publicity. I had been previously hired by them to shoot production of another performance, but had never been hired to do publicity. The Marketing Director had seen some of my onlo publicity imagery for other clients and thought it would be great to do one for their production of Les Miz. In this case we took a day to drive around the area to look for just the right setting. I knew that the location needed to replicate the script, stone walls, old wooden doors etc. As we drove around the area I found a couple of “OK” locations, but nothing that really floated by boat.
So I made a call to my partner back in the Bay Area. We normally work together, but since we were double booked (when you’re self employed I call that a ‘pretty girl problem!’) she was back home covering another client’s session. I asked her to get on the Web to look for an old church or rock quarry. In about ten minutes she called back and said “All of the churches close to you are modern and won’t do for what you’re looking for. I checked out a rock quarry very close to you on Google Earth. I can’t tell because the view is from their satellite shot straight down, but it looks like a a great possible for you. Here’s the address. Gotta run, heading to the client shoot, good luck.”
So the Marketing Director and I drove over to the rock quarry and I IMMEDIATELY fell in love with the venue. We spoke with the owner and he was more than willing to allow us to shoot there on the date we wanted for a couple of tickets to the performance. He even went on to say that if our date was when they were closed, he’d be happy to come in and open the place up for us.
So on the day of the shoot the weather was projected to be rain. The Marketing Director called me and said “Mark, what do we do if it rains, I’m nervous!?” I simply said, “If you can have three people there with umbrellas you don’t have to worry.” My plan was to have those three stand over my strobes with their umbrellas so that strobes and power packs were protected. I was actually hoping it would rain because I felt it would add to the ambient atmosphere of the shot and I’ve shot with my 1DX in full rain without a problem. On the day of the shoot, it did rain, but only lightly and the cloud cover was PERFECT for the session. For you gear heads I used PCB Einsteins and his Vagabond Mini power packs. Paul’s lighting is my preferred studio strobe equipment.
Shot with two PCB Einsteins. Behind Greg is a parking lot full of cars and trucks. Shot a light with a cone modifier through the arch to reduce ambient behind him and blacken out the parking lot. Key light is a single Einstein held camera left high by an assistant. Shot with a variable ND filter set to -6 stops with a 1DX
Single Einstein used through a specular modifier, Elinchrom deep octa camera right held by an assistant. (voice activated light stand!)
Single Einstein with cone reflector. Negative reflector to camera left. Variable ND filter used on a 1DX set to -4 stops
Two Einsteins. One shot from behind the subject with a cone to reduce office ambient and to produce the dramatic shadow. Second key light to camera left shot through an Elinchrom deep octa. I wet the pavement to add reflection to the shot.
Being patient means KNOWING your equipment front to back, no matter what type of camera/lighting you’re using. Your client could care less if you’re using a Nikon, Canon, Fuji or other camera or whether you’re a Profoto fan or Uncle Bob’s strobe user. They could care less if you’re a full frame guy or gal, use a cropped sensor or not. The PICTURE tells the story and how well you know how to think on your feet, exhibit creativity on the run, keep the talent engaged and get a photo better than they ever imagined are elements that separate the men from the fan boys!
Whether you shoot for your entire income, are a ‘semi pro’ or just shoot for the pure enjoyment of the craft, be patient. For me that means taking the time to truly know your gear, all of it. Practice, read, experiment and have fun with what you already have. I get as much fun as the next guy when I want to buy something new. But the real difference is how I USE my gear, not what brand it is or its stats. To a client In the commercial world, you’re only as good as your last session. They’ve trusted me with their whole marketing campaign based on my shooting style and consistency in delivering a great product. Practice, know your existing gear and develop a body of work. One great shot leads to a second great shot. The difference between a good or nice shot and a great one is huge. And that comes only through forced patience.
I often say that cameras are just like any other tool, sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes you need a wrench. While shooting for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra I noticed an infinity pool located on their property. Technically the pool belongs to the AT&T building, but for me that was just a technicality! I kept hounding the DSO’s VP of Marketing that “We just have to do a shoot in that pool!” I think he figured I’d never stop hounding him so on one Fall day in 2013 he let me know that “We’re doing it Mark!” WOOHOO I thought to myself until he told me that we’d be shooting right around every photographer’s least favorite time, high noon. UGH so much for getting what you wish for… One of the differences between commercial photography and doing it as a hobby is you HAVE to make due with the cards dealt and make it look GREAT. There’s money and your reputation at stake. Remember to a client you’re only as good as your last session.
I was out in the pool only fifteen minutes before the talent arrived, 13 of DSO’s best musicians including their Concert Master who was carrying his 300 year old 5 million dollar Stradivarius violin! I almost had a heart attack as he was holding THE violin in one hand AND while standing on one leg as he was trying to roll his other pant leg up. In total there must have been over 20 million dollars worth of instruments on that pool of WATER. No it’s not deep, but that didn’t quell my nervousness.
I had planned to reduce the ambient on my 1DX by using a variable ND filter since I was using two PCB Einsteins, one with a beauty dish attached and the other with a 64″ PLM Soft Silver parabolic. I was using the PLM as my key light and the beauty dish as the fill since it was not only noon, but windy that day. Try as I did I could not get the ambient down low enough using the ND filter, it reduced my flash power lower than I wanted. So it was time to put away the ‘hammer’ and bring out the ‘wrench.’
So I went into my bag to get my trusty X100S. You see I purchased this little unit specifically for its leaf shutter. In case you aren’t aware leaf shutters don’t follow the same rules as focal plane shutters, you can use flash to almost an unlimited sync speed based on the camera. Remember that hand held flash units that use High Speed Sync are different than using strobes. HSS pulses the light so that their DSLRs can shoot at ‘high shutter speeds.’ (which in turn greatly reduces their overall power)
I killed the noon day ambient with the X100S by shooting at a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second at f4.5 ISO 200. Just like that I had the exposure I wanted for the shot. In this case I found that using a ‘wrench’ instead of a ‘hammer’ was the right tool for the job. This was my second time using the little Fuji for the DSO and I could not be happier. My other shot can be seen here.
Using the Fuji X100S on location in Huntington Beach, CA with a very simple and portable lighting setup along with the lovely model Kiki. A Canon EX580II Speedlight, a Westcott 26″ Octa Rapid Box and inexpensive CowboyStudio triggers. I seldom use ETTL, but prefer manual flash exposures. The Speedlight was set at 1/8 power for all shots which is a huge advantage. Why? Well when combined with Eneloop XX 2500mH rechargeables it means the Speedlight’s recycle time is fast enough to catch the ever changing nuances of a woman’s expression.
For me the difference between a killer shot and a good one is often found in the slightest change in expression. Waiting for my flash to recycle can prevent me from grabbing that killer shot and that is just not acceptable. Because I can reduce the environment’s ambient light due to the Fuji’s leaf shutter’s high sync speed I can reduce the flash’s power setting which equals a faster recycle rate. And remember, I’m shooting all of these through a modifier too which in this case I estimate reduces the flash’s power by at least one full stop. As in these shots I almost always use the Westcott’s optional Beauty Dish Reflector Plate in the Octa. I prefer the spread of light the dish produces rather than shooting a speed light directly at the front diffuser. A little trick I learned is to set my Speed Light Zoom to its maximum, in this case 105mm. To my eye doing so gives me almost an extra stop of flash power without actually taxing the flash.
Each of the images displays the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. I find that with this little setup allows for some amazing on location sessions with very little fuss.
Although I tend to work with assistants, this was not the case for this session. There’s something very satisfying about occasionally working solo.
As a full time commercial performance photographer who specializes in theatrical, symphonic and dance photography, both for production as well as publicity I questioned the viability of using an X100S in the commercial world. I have waited to review the X100S I purchased from Amazon and received on March 28 2013 simply because I wanted to take some time to use the camera before writing a review.
I had purchased an X100 just before the S model was announced and found the image quality to be remarkable. Because I was late to the game in purchasing the X100 many of the ‘quirks’ others complained about I did not experience due to the numerous firmware updates Fuji had released since the camera’s inception. Because the X100S had features that could not be fixed through a firmware update such as the Q button and moving the focus point selector from the left to the right I opted to sell my X100 and preordered the S model.
I have experimented with the X100S over the past two months using it in both personal and commercial work. Yes I said commercial work. There are several features I find quite remarkable on a camera in any price range:
1. The sharpness of the images due in part to the elimination of the optical low pass filter
2. The noise performance of the camera
3. Having an (almost) unlimited flash sync speed due to its leaf shutter
4. Built in 3 stop ND filter
5. An almost completely silent shutter (again due to its leaf shutter)
What I would like to see improved:
1. A bit more resistance to the on/off switch
2. Allowing the user to customize the Q menu to allow for ALL camera operating choices
3. Allow shooting in RAW mode to include 100 ISO (200 is currently the lowest ISO in RAW)
4. Allow shooting at any shutter speed at any aperture. (this may not be physically possible…)
5. The camera has a tendency to overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop
6. Even though the X100S has a dedicated EyeFi card menu selection, the transfer speed of small JPGS to an iPad is very slow. Much slower than a 5DIII and in some cases makes using it as a wirelessly tethered camera almost useless.
The OVF and EVF viewfinders are absolutely brilliant. I find that I have used both equally depending on the shooting situation. In very low light I have found the EVF invaluable. In situations where I need to keep an eye on the environment, the OVF is just killer. While I’m on the subject I personally would never consider a camera that does NOT have a dedicated viewfinder. Since I grew up using SLRs and DSLRs I just cannot effectively use a camera where my only option is to use an LCD screen. I’m also not a fan of having to purchase an ‘optional’ EVF viewfinder for any camera. Just a personal preference.
Did I consider other non DSLR cameras before purchasing the X100S (originally the X100)? Yes, I considered the Canon line for a couple of reasons; their G series has a viewfinder and my primary gear is Canon. Others? Only those that had a viewfinder and I found that those which only have an EVF were a bit too ‘jerky’ to me. I also tend to put more stock into reviews from people whose body of work I respect. There are plenty of sites on the Web that give tech details and masturbatory reviews of tech specs, but in the end what I produce from any camera is what’s more important. I respect Zack’s (Arias) work and put stock into how he feels about a camera simply because of his body of work. Although we shoot different types of imagery I trust his and other photographers I respect more than technical sites. A personal view which has served me well.
I have always wanted a camera that is lightweight and compact (relative to my work gear) that I can carry with me everywhere. No the X100S is NOT something I can slip into my pocket, but that’s OK by me. I simply wear it across my chest using a Luma Labs Cinch strap and I barely notice it’s there. My plan was to use it primarily for street shooting, which is something I have a voracious appetite for and have done quite a lot over the years. At least when I have time! Yes I miss a zoom which I found I depended upon quite a bit for my street shooting. But something that a fixed lens camera forces me to do is to immerse myself into the environment for street shooting. It also allows me to grow as a photographer, to get more context into my shots. I have personally found that using the Fuji at night rather than the day makes it easier for me to street shoot. The ISO performance of the X100S is on par with my 1DX up to 6400 ISO and a tad better than my 5DIII. The f2.0 lens allows me to bokeh scenes in a wonderful way. Of course that all depends on how close I am to the primary subject, aperture, etc but I’ve found it quite lovely.
One of the most remarkable features for me is the ability to use small hand held flash units as fill flash with the X100S due to its leaf shutter. I was literally blown away that using a single Canon 580II through a modifier could produce results that in the past required me to use a studio strobe and an ND filter to achieve. I love the fact that I can carry a small flash unit in my bag and take almost commercial level portraits. I’ll try to upload some examples with this review. I had mentioned that one of my wishes was for Fuji to enable the X100S select any shutter speed with any aperture. Currently they recommend 1/1000th at a minimum aperture of f2.0. If you want to use 1/2000th, then you must use f4.0 or smaller.
I have found that if I’m using a radio trigger to activate the off camera flash 1/1000th and f2.0 works. Anything faster in speed results in funky exposure results. However if I use a cable rather than a radio trigger I can squeeze 1/2000th with f2.0. In terms of flash, milliseconds count so a wired connection is better in some circumstances. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
In terms of the ‘silent shutter’ I had firsthand experience with that feature this past week. I was hired to photograph both a live and rehearsal performance of a major US symphony. Since I use two cameras whenever I shoot production had I not had the X100S I would have only shot with my 5DIII in silent mode during louder passages. I never even considered my 1DX because even on ‘silent’ mode it is way too loud. And when I was told the last commercial shooter was kicked out by the world renowned conductor due to his camera noise (understandable) and attitude (bad) I didn’t intend to make the same mistake. So during passages where the musicians were playing very softly I was able to make images with the X100S. Again, a remarkably useful feature for my work.
I won’t go into the things I ‘love’ about this camera since that is all relative to each user. I also won’t ever be able to completely replace my commercial gear with only mirrorless cameras. Because I shoot dance and live theatre the X100S along with other cameras of this type are just not fast enough from a focusing/shutter release standpoint. But for portraits and publicity work I have and plan to continue to use it for client work; it’s that good.
Who should buy this camera? Who am I to say!? I can only say (in no particular order) that with its remarkable shutter sync speed, image quality, hi ISO performance and build quality I’m very happy to have purchased this little camera. It’s THAT good. And like any tool (rather than looking at gear as a ‘jewel’) it’s perfect for the right job. Will it make you a better photographer; nope. Only improving your skills and executing your imagination will do that.