Jun 302015

People who know far more about location audio and filmmaking than I do have long maintained that while on occasion you may be able to get away with less than perfect video, substandard audio is a film-killer. While I’m fairly new to shooting video (relative to the 25 years I’ve been making pictures), this was something that was well worth learning very early.

I’ve been shooting a feature-length documentary film about Austin Riley, a 16 year old boy from a little north of Toronto who is a go kart racing phenom. He’s been racing since he was eight years old and has rocketed through the ranks of classes to the top level of karting in North America. On its own, that’s pretty remarkable as the drivers he’s competing against in what’s known as DD2 or shifter karts are generally older than him by five or more years and with much more experience than he has, but it’s further amazing as Austin battles with the challenges of autism every day.

When I first started shooting this documentary I was using a shotgun mic for general, overall audio capture in close quarters (like inside the race trailer) or when filming actual racing on the track. I was also using a single Sennheiser wireless lavalier mic to capture dialogue between subjects and for interviews. This setup was generally passable for one subject or a conversation between two subjects if they were very close together in a quiet environment. For anything outside, dialogue was terrible with the shotgun and any second (or sometimes third) person in frame would be lost when using the lavalier on one subject. If I had the expertise of a dedicated sound person carrying a boom mic, things would have been very different, however as a ‘one man band’ due both to budgetary and space restrictions, this was just not possible.

I quickly looked into other options and found the Audio Technica ATW-1820 system. This included a dual channel receiver that could be (with a little McGyvering) be mounted to my shoulder rig and would pick up audio from not one, but two wireless lavalier mics. This system would allow me to mic the main two of my four subjects and let their mics run all day while from the camera side, I could easily turn one of them off if one of them was not on-camera. The omni-directional lavaliers that came with the system offered a wide enough pattern that picking up a conversation between two or more people with solid audio quality was a breeze while still cutting out much of the background noise that would be, well, noisy.

I utilized this system over the course of five weeks on the road as I crossed the country with the racing team from the west coast, all the way back to Toronto, shooting inside, outside, in schools during autism awareness presentations, even at the side of the track with karts flying past at upwards of 75 mph and all with great results.

It’s possible to spend thousands of dollars per channel on wireless audio equipment. My budget doesn’t remotely come close to that snack bracket. The Sennheiser that I started with runs in the range of CA$675 for the equipment necessary to mic one subject, or one channel. It’s not unheard of for sound professionals to spend upwards of CA$3000 for one channel with equipment from Lectrosonics, for example. Is there a difference in quality? Of course there is. That said, however, the audio quality that I’ve been getting with the ATW-1820 system at roughly CA$1800 for two channels, has been excellent and with a very little bit of tweaking in post-production, I’m more than happy with the results.

If I had to do it all over again, I would start with the Audio Technica system hands down.

Dec 072013

Raine Maida Montreal BTS from Jon Blacker

Having worked with his management company while making portraits of a couple of the members of Finger Eleven (James Black and Rich Beddoe) for my Musical Ink book, in February of this year I had the great opportunity to work with Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida on the set of the shooting of a music video for his new single Montreal.

We arranged to work together to shoot a full day behind the scenes project with Raine consisting of stills and time-lapse segments while they shot the music video.

The day started early with me arriving at 7:00am before the crew started loading gear into the venue; Victoria College at the University of Toronto.

First on my hit list was setting up the time-lapse camera. I was using three Nikon D600 bodies for this project and dedicated one of them to shoot one frame every 10 seconds to capture the entire day from load-in to load-out and include several segments into the final piece. Of course there was no power at the back of the room where I set up the time-lapse body with an AC adapter (it was going to be a long day and running on batteries was simply not an option). Fortunately I brought a 100’ extension cord and plugged in next to the stage then taped the cord to the floor all the way back to the tripod; the LAST thing you ever want to happen is have someone trip over your extension cord! I set the interval to fire every 10 seconds and dialed the exposure in to ISO 800, f/5.6 and Aperture Priority; during the course of the day, the lighting was going to be all over the place, and I was not going to be able to constantly make adjustments.

With the time-lapse up and running, I was able to step back and slow down a little, shooting the room as the crew wheeled in road case upon road case and started setting up the show. Everyone had their task and this crew really worked well together to put this set up. I did my thing while they were doing theirs; shooting the entire production as some were setting up lighting while others set up instruments while others still were running cable upon cable from amps & microphones to the mixing board.

Once the stage was set, Raine and the band took their positions and pixels started rolling (the entire music video was shot using Nikon D800 bodies and Nikkor lenses – a deal that I arranged between the production company and Nikon Canada). I had free reign to be anywhere I wished during shooting (provided I wasn’t in their shots of course) to make the images I wanted, providing me many unique angles as they played Montreal live over and over…and over again. It was when the smoke machine started up that the truest technical challenge of the day presented itself. The contrast fell out of the light almost completely. Focusing was tough at times when the smoke was at its thickest and the color temperature of the lighting changed dramatically.

In the end, after filming was completed, both with and without a live audience, I felt I came away with same really great images that would tell the story of the day, from empty room to empty room.
My decision to convert my entire piece to black and white stemmed primarily from an aesthetic perspective; I felt it not only paired well with the song, but it gave a gritty feel to my images, a peek back stage through a dirty window, that I think would have largely been lost in color.

At the end of the day, this was a great project to shoot, allowing me to show the entire process of a video shooting day from start to finish. It also sparked an idea that I have since pithed to a number of bands on tour; A Day on the Road With…

A Day on the Road With is not unlike what I’ve shown here with Raine Maida; full day coverage of every move the band makes from the time the tour bus shows up until they’re back on the road to the next show. I’m talking with a couple of bands already; stay tuned.

Nov 052013


I have been shooting lit portraits for a long time. When I first started working in the news media so many years ago, those portraits were lit with one, sometimes two Vivitar 285 flashes. As my work gravitated into a slightly more commercial realm, I needed bigger lights. I bough a couple of used (abused, really) Speedotron 2400 w/s packs and a few 102 heads and they skies opened. Softboxes and umbrellas and scrims, oh my. The difference in the power and the quality of light compared to the 285s was, well, night & day. The Speedotrons were bulletproof, but they were also very old and very heavy.

After a couple of years, I replaced those old faithful packs and heads with some Profoto gear. That system was pretty. Faster and lighter than the Speedos, it was also much more expensive, however the higher cost gave me beautiful light. With the exception of the stands and softboxes, I could fit the entire system into a large Lightware case. Sure I still needed to haul it around on a two-wheel dolly, but it was all in one case, unlike my previous system which typically needed three or four trips to load into a location.

Having used the Profoto system to a point where I didn’t really even have to think about the controls when making lighting ratio adjustments, I began work on my Musical Ink book project shooting very, very fast portraits of musicians. If I was shooting locally in Toronto, I could load up the car and, with a third arm, make it inside the venue/hotel/office where I would be setting up in just one trip with a fully loaded UPS dolly. It was still a ton of stuff to carry though, so I began to reevaluate my lighting system.

I owned a couple of Nikon SB-900 Speedlights at the time and gave serious consideration giving up my Profoto system and going all small flashes. Joe McNally does it. So does David Hobby. Why couldn’t I do it too? So, I picked up another four SB-900s and after hanging onto it for a few more months, sold off my entire Profoto system (except, strangely, one speedring which I recently discovered in my office).
I McGuyvered a couple of Lastolite brackets and was able to use my same old softboxes to light my portraits. I triggered the lights with Pocket Wizard TT5 radios and as a whole the system worked great. It wasn’t cheap to be sure, but I could travel with two carry-on camera bags; one with my flash system and one with my cameras and laptop. If my checked luggage was lost, I was still able to work. For the next four years, that was my entire lighting kit and it was great…almost. The one single down side had always been battery power. At full or nearly full power, the recycle time was long and shooting with ‘my’ rock stars, I had to maximize my frame count in the minimum amount of time.


While I know now that they have been around for several years already, I recently discovered the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system. I tend not to be much of a gear hound, never really caring about having the latest and greatest shiny new toy. When I stumbled upon the Quadra, I knew I had finally found the perfect system for my needs.


The Quadra system consists of a battery-powered 400 watt second pack and will run two heads asymmetrically (66%/33%). As shown here, the heads are actually smaller than the SB-900s I was using and at full power with a single head, put out out roughly 4 times the light of one SB-900. The system includes a SkyPort radio transmitter and the pack has a built-in receiver. Working together, that radio system allows adjustment of the power output right from the camera, not unlike the Pocket Wizard AC3 or the Nikon SU-800


I still have a pair of SB-900s to use for my news work and a couple of Pocket Wizard TT5 radios that I employ when I rig a remote camera, but for location lighting, the Elinchrom Quadra system is my ideal. Two packs, three batteries and four heads (plus the awesome, light ECO ring flash) all fit into a carry-on legal Lightware case and the whole kit weighs in at just under 29 pounds – a Speedo 2400 w/s pack all by itself weighs…29 pounds. Before you start yelling at your computer, I’m well aware that the comparing the two is apples to amplifiers, however, for the vast majority of work I do, I’ll take 2-400 w/s packs & four heads that weigh the same as a single 2400 w/s pack every day, especially when I’m working on location where I’d rather not have to hunt for power, without an assistant, shooting a subject who has about two minutes to give me.


The above image of Buckcherry’s Josh Todd is a perfect example of one of my backstage portraits; shot backstage at Toronto’s Phoenix, I had him in front of me for about three minutes and had to be set up and torn down in twenty because the space I was given was quickly turning into the merchandise area and would soon be filled with fans buying t-shirts. The output is beautiful, the system sets up faster because there are fewer moving parts to the system and it’s compact.

I have seen the light…so to speak.

Mar 252012

Over the past couple of years I’ve exchanged a long string of emails with the manager of rock guitar legend Slash.   I wrote recently that I was able to spend some hands-on time with a pre-production sample of Nikon’s brand new flagship DSLR, the D4.  While those two statements may seem entirely unrelated, a few days ago they came together in a most outstanding way.

Slash’s manager Jeff and I had been discussing the possibility of setting up a quick portrait session to include Slash in my Musical Ink book project.  Ultimately it was not meant to be as Slash really prefers not to talk about his tattoos; I’ve long subscribed to the edict that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.  Asking doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get, but not asking pretty much assures you won’t.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, etc., etc.

Canadian Music Week just wrapped up and one of the week’s keynote speakers on Friday was Slash.  With his new record ‘Apocalyptic Love’ set to drop on May 22, it seemed a perfect opportunity for a show.   That show, at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre had apparently sold out in under twenty minutes.  While Slash won’t be in my Musical Ink book, Jeff was happy to let me shoot the show.

Cue my good friends at Nikon.  A live show by one of rock’s iconic guitarists seemed an absolutely perfect place for a real world test of the D4 and Amanda, Toronto’s Nikon Professional Services manager agreed.

I picked up the camera on Thursday and ‘made it my own’, adjusting some settings and tweaking a few custom functions to my preference, things like using the AF-ON button rather than the shutter release for initiating auto focus.  I really wanted to give the high ISO capabilities of the D4 a workout, along with the autofocus, metering and overall handling of the camera while doing what I do.

Slash & his band were going on at 11 o’clock Friday night and it turned out that media access to the packed house was extremely restricted with only 5 photographers being permitted into the unusually spacious pit to shoot the first three songs of the set.

Three songs always seem to fly by but they really do afford plenty of time to come away with images.  Friday night, using the D4, I was able to come away with nothing I could have imagined.  Wanting to really see the D4 could do, I set the ISO to 12800, the highest setting in the camera’s ‘native’ ISO range before leaving for the show.  The D3/D700 bodies I regularly shoot live music with are generally solid up to 6400 if the exposure is tight, and noise can be managed fairly well in Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw before actually opening the file.

I always shoot live music in RAW to allow more control & adjustments later if necessary.  The drawback of shooting RAW is the buffer size of the D3/D700 bodies; if you go on a long burst, they start to hiccup around 15 frames.  Loaded with a Lexar Professional 600x 32GB UDMA CF card, I wanted to see what the D4 could do so at one point I just hammered down…and it kept shooting.  And shooting.  And shooting.  Recording 12-bit lossless compressed RAW files, the D4 has a buffer capacity of 92 images.  Far, far beyond any reasonable or practical use I can think of, but plenty of head room even if you go on a 20 frame run.

The images you see here, all shot with the D4 (at ISO 12800, remember?), with the exception of a little bit of toning and a bit of sharpening, are straight out of the camera (they were converted to jpg in Aperture and toned and sharpened in Photoshop CS5).  The noise is…well, there isn’t any noise.  I applied no noise reduction to any of these; not in the camera, not in the computer. In terms of handling, the ergonomics are bang on, particularly that vertical AF-ON button; my hand just falls right on top of it.  The autofocus is incredibly fast and insanely accurate.  All of these images were shot with my AF-S 24-70/2.8, one of the sharpest lenses I own.  I shot about 95% of the images I made Friday night with that combination (the rest were with a D3/AF-S 70-200/2.8VR, and a few with a D7000/10.5 fisheye).

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…


Jan 252012

I recently described the parts that go into my portable lighting kit. This is what it looks like in action. On location outdoors, a single Nikon SB900 with an appropriate modifier works wonders in open shade and is the ideal tool to fill in those shadows. Add in a couple of additional lights and create prefect subject separation from the background. Here you can see the setup I used when I photographed a series of portraits for Alex.

I used two Chimera 9×36 strip lights, one on each side, slightly behind Alex and the beauty dish camera left as my main light. I first dialed in my ambient exposure to determine how much of the background I wanted to see, then added in my lights; main light first, then the two strip lights, to balance everything out. My goal with this particular portrait setup was to be fairly subtle with the strobes; I wanted them apparent, but I didn’t want to overpower the entire scene. With the Pocket Wizard AC3 directing the Flex TT5s , I was able to easily tweak the output of each light right from the camera without having to physically go to each flash to make any adjustments.

The real brilliance of this system is that it’s small, light-weight, battery-powered and super fast to set up; In the length of time it took Alex to wipe down his bike, I was ready to shoot.

Jan 122012

Before we even get started, let me say this; This is not a review. There is no measurable technobabble to follow. Not talk of megapixels or battery capacity or memory card formats. This is my first impression of a pretty kick-ass camera. With that out of the way, let’s go…

I had the opportunity to sit down with my good friends at Nikon in Toronto yesterday to have some hands-on time with the new D4 body. It was a pre-production sample and one of only three in the country.

Nikon has long ruled the ergonomics game, but the D4 makes their previous cameras look like bricks. This thing just fits as though it was molded for my hand. All of the controls seem to fall right under my fingers. Most notably, I’ve always had an issue with where the vertical AF-ON button was located. Over a year ago I had a conversation with Toronto’s Nikon Professional Services (NPS) wunderkind Amanda about it & even sent her a picture of where I thought it should go…which is exactly where it is on the D4. Where do I send my design invoice?

I’m not really a sports shooter any more, so crazy-fast frame rates don’t get me particularly excited. I do like that with the D4 the native ISO range is now 100 (in the D3-series it was 200) which is great for my portrait work, to 12,800. This range can be extended on both ends from 50 on the low end to 204,800. I grew up shooting film in Nikon FM bodies and it was a pretty big deal when Kodak announced their ground-breaking T-Max P3200. It was an incredible breakthrough for shooting indoor sports and in other low light conditions. But 204,800? That’s approaching superpower-see-in-the-dark range. Somewhere in the middle will be the ideal ISO for shooting live music even in the darkest of small venues.

Oh, and how about a carbon fibre shutter rated for 400,000 cycles? Or how about a Silent Mode? And it’s not quiet. It truly is silent. Like check the back of the camera to make sure it actually took an image silent. Now granted Silent only gives you a 1920×1080 pixel frame capture, but there will definitely be uses for it. There’s also a Quiet Mode that locks up the mirror and uses Live View for framing. It’s still much more quiet than a standard shutter cycle because the mirror flapping up and down is taken out of the equation.

There is one especially cool feature built into the D4; it has a Timelapse Mode. You dial in your exposure interval and how long you want it to run. When it’s done, it assembles all of the images and spits out timelapse .MOV file right in the camera. That’s cool.

There are a lot of new video-centric features in the D4. I’m not a video guy and I don’t play one on TV, but some of the new tools crammed into the D4 make me want to shoot video. For example, when Nikon introduced their first full-frame DSLR body, they kept the ability for the user to effectively use a cropped, or DX sensor (the sensor that is in the D2-series, the D300 bodies and most of their prosumer and consumer models). Shooting video with the D4, you have that option, but you also have another one; a 2.7x crop. Here’s the thing…shooting stills, when you go from full frame to DX-mode, you lose resolution simply because you’re using less of the physical sensor. When you’re shooting video with the D4, you retain full 1080p HD resolution regardless what your crop setting is. Now that is crazy. It also has on-board audio level meters and a headphone jack so you can monitor the audio that’s being recorded.

I wasn’t able to shoot any images with the camera that can be published because Nikon is still updating firmware to make little tweaks and functional refinements & they’re very strict about it – every single image that is published out of a pre-release body has to be approved by Nikon in Japan.

I’m really looking forward to getting one out of an office at Nikon and into my makeshift studio to shoot a backstage portrait. Or in the pit at a live show. Or, well, really anywhere outside of an office at Nikon.

This camera is something sweet. My bank account is nervous.

Jan 042012

Like many photographers, I am often asked what gear I use.  Specifically, I’m most often asked about my lighting kit.  I shoot quickly, frequently under very tight time constraints and nine times out of 10, I work without an assistant.  Whether I’m shooting a musician back stage before a show or a CEO in his office between a conference call and a board meeting, I need to have a kit that’s flexible, compact, light and easy to set up & tear down.

With that in mind, I’ve refined my location portrait kit to the point that it (almost) all fits into a Mountainsmith Reflex II – XL camera bag.  Loaded into this bag is:

5 – Manfrotto 5001b Nano Stands.  More than sturdy enough to support a Speedlight, these stands are ideal for this kit.

5 – Nikon SB-900 Speedlights.  These are Nikon’s flagship strobes. They pack plenty of punch and recycle quickly.

7 – Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 transievers.  These units are quite simply brilliant.  They allow full TTL control of the SB-900s in three separate banks; I can have a main light on one bank, a couple of rim or hair lights on a second bank and blow out the background on a wall or seamless with the third and can control all of that right from the top of the camera and each of banks or zones can be independently controlled with…

2 – Pocket Wizard AC3 Zone Controllers which are in the left front pocket. I carry two of these because I often shoot with two cameras (particularly when I’m working on my Musical Ink book, with one color camera and one infrared camera).  These units allow each camera to have totally different flash exposures set up without having to touch the flashes.  These are the units that adjust the flash output in the individual banks I mentioned above.  In the right pocket is a small bag with gel filters for color correction or special color effects and a Honl grid.

2 – Chimera XS (16”x22”) softboxes.  These are standard off the shelf Chimera boxes (silver interior).  To mount them to the stands and in turn to mount Speedlights to them, I’ve taken two Lastolite EzyBox brackets and modified them with standard Chimera softbox speedrings.  This allows me to use virtually any standard sofbox with my Speedlights.

All of this is packed into the Mountainsmith, which is no bigger than a standard large camera bag.

The (almost) parts I mentioned at the beginning that don’t fit into the Mountainsmith are my 19” beauty dish, pictured here with the rest of the kit and a Lastolite collapsible 6’x7’ white/grey background.  The beauty dish I put together with a few machine screws, a small aluminum plate and a 20qt stainless steel bowl.  The outside is painted black, the inside painted white.  With a single SB-900, the results are amazing; something like a cross between a softbox and an umbrella.  When I’m shooting an environmental portrait, obviously the background stays packed, but when it gets pulled out, the resulting images are virtually indistinguishable from having been shot in a full-blown studio with big lights and a cyclorama.

There it is.  My location lighting kit.  Light, compact & fast.  I have flown with this kit (without the background or beauty dish) as a carry-on and along with my camera bag (a ThinkTank Urban Disguise 60), have been able to get right to work at the other end without worrying about lost luggage or needing to rent lights.