Facing Dragons and unexpected gifts

Dragon motif red.png

So I did a secret presentation in the San Francisco studio of CreativeLive last week, just before my publicly broadcast 2-day presentation. I was invited by the staff of CreativeLive to do a "20 minutes of Genius” talk, just for them – no cameras. That was a bit intimidating. “Genius?” I didn’t feel qualified to fill those shoes, but I knew I could share something meaningful with them, nonetheless. 

I decided I needed to share some things I’ve never publicly shared. I asked them all to agree to keep everything I said private, and I was actually pretty nervous – and I don’t usually get too nervous anymore before a talk. I gave my talk and felt really good about it. One of the things that I shared near the end was the realization that we don’t always know where, when, or how the “reason” or result of our actions, or f#¢k ups, will manifest or make themselves known. I believe there always is a gift, or lesson, but it can take years for the realization to hit – sometimes. Occasionally, the gift is quite immediate and may even try to sneak by you.

My live program on creativeLIVE last week. You can still  get the 2-day business class!  at a great discount right now.

My live program on creativeLIVE last week. You can still get the 2-day business class! at a great discount right now.

Fast forward a couple days and I’ve completed my 2-day live course. Everything went smooth and I had a wonderful studio audience that I really connected with, and felt I had truly impacted. I was very grateful for the entire experience – including the amazing team at CreativeLive that constantly blows me away with their professionalism and genuine caring. This was enough of a gift already.

We had our little wrap party, with some wine, beer, sparkling water, and edible treats – some green and some red. I said goodbye to my students one-by-one, hugging them as they bid farewell. I was finishing my drink with my host, Jim, and my broadcast tech, John. The song, “Closing Time” played on my internal turntable.

At the end of my live program, I had mentioned some of my favorite books – readings that had significantly influenced my personal and business life and success. John said this made him think of his all-time favorite, and recalled the book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. 

“Have you read it?” he asked me. "It rings a bell," I said, but maybe that’s because I was thinking of the classic, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu – which I have read. 

“Wait here.” he said as he ran out of the kitchen, leaving me hanging. I polished my sparkling water and burped. 

Seconds later he returned with a fresh copy of the book in hand. “I keep a stack of them on my desk to give people whenever I think they’ll dig it.” 

I took one look at the cover and knew that I had to read it. It was speaking to me already. I thanked him sincerely, and accepted the gift.

We finished up our drinks and packed up our bags. I headed back to my cozy airbnb and contemplated going out with some friends to dinner. Being the introvert that I am, (yes, that seems contrary to the qualities of a public speaker, but that’s another story) I was feeling like I just needed some down time to recharge and reflect. I also wanted to try this delicious looking Nepalese restaurant that was down the street. I found out they delivered, so I phoned in my order and sat down to read, The War of Art. 

The food came before I knew it and I tried to keep reading while I answered the door. That didn’t work well. I gave my full attention to my friendly delivery guy, tipped and thanked him, then plated the chicken curry and momos. I can’t remember the last time I ate with one hand and held a book with the other, but it had a very erudite feel to it. 

When dinner was consumed, I plopped down across the couch and continued to read until the book was completed and fully digested. Fortunately, it is a quick read. I think the eloquence and directness of the writing, mixed with the brevity, made it particularly poignant. I could not wait to read it again. There were passages I wanted to underline. There were words in there that moved me, and I knew they were worth scribing in my inspiration notebook. 

“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel towards pursuing it.” – Steven Pressfield.

This smacked me in the face.

“We’re facing dragons too. Fire-breathing griffins of the soul, who we must outfight and outwit to reach the treasure of our self-in-potential and to release the maiden who is God’s plan and destiny for ourselves and the answer to why were were put on this planet.” – also from the book.

Gulp. I love dragons. How did he know? I have a little toy Dragon on my nightstand – my Dragon of Fear. It reminds me to face those fears when I fear them the most. I brought my Dragon for show-and-tell at the private talk earlier. He was now sitting on the desk across from my couch.

The next morning I boarded my plane to head home and before they could say, “Please put your devices in airplane mode…” I had my new book out for a second read, notebook and pen at the ready. The journey was one of the shortest I’ve ever had, despite the 2 legs and 1-hour delay. 

As I lay comfortably back in my own bed that night, I wondered if receiving this gift of inspiration was the actual, deeper reason for my visit to San Francisco to teach. In my talks, I had proclaimed how we can receive these lessons and gifts in very unexpected ways. I realized once again that sometimes it takes time to realize the purpose of an encounter or experience, but sometimes it happens immediately. I may have thought I was going there simply to teach – but in the final moments, before I left the building, I was given the gift I came there to receive. 

One of the other things I challenged my students to do in the live class was to actually, really, track everything they do during a work day for 2 weeks. This helps us to see where we misspend our important time, or use it less efficiently. Often, the simple act of recording something can influence you to change or improve – like recording what you eat, or when you exercise. I have found that simply writing down the realizations I have about the unexpected gifts & lessons in my life makes me more grateful for them – which translates directly to an influx of more gifts. Funny how that works. 

Doing 4K RAW video right: What we learned

This was a frame grab pulled from the 4K RAW video on the Sony FS5. The original is of sufficient resolution to make a nice 11x14" print.

I've been really digging working with video lately. Me and my creative partner, Benjamin Edwards, have been experimenting with new gear and techniques, and sometimes the only way to learn something is trial by fire. And, so it was on a recent job that I helped Ben with. Ben was the mastermind behind this shoot, so he put together some things he learned about shooting 4K RAW video. When you really, really, want beautiful footage, this is the way to go. I'll let him explain...

More and more, still photographers are finding their way to commercial video/filmmaking. For years, still photographers have seen the value of utilizing slideshows and now we see the heightened value of using moving imagery to tell a story. Visual storytelling using film/video is a natural progression for the still photographer, however, that progression has a steep learning curve – and expense.

Kevin, and I, are knee deep in the progression of storytelling as we embark on cinematically capturing our passion for motorcycles with interesting storylines (Racer Gloves :: Finding Mickey.)

In the beginning we experimented with different cameras, ways to move those cameras, attached the cameras in unique places, fly the cameras – all while trying to attain the best image quality and audio possible. Things broke. It was exhausting, frustrating, and absolutely exciting. It still is.

While DSLR’s are quite capable when it comes to filmmaking, they definitely have their drawbacks. It wasn’t long before we realized that although we had purchased gear that enabled us to move the cameras cinematically (sliders, DJI Ronin, Aviator Camera Jib) the camera itself needed an upgrade.

Enter the Sony Fs5 Super 35 camera system. The FS5 gave us more than a few things that a DSLR couldn’t: The possibility of full 4096x2160 RAW 4k (with optional $499 upgrade), (2) XLR audio inputs (this is huge), built in electronic variable ND filter (even huger – is that a word?), 240fps (super slooow-moooooo) SDI in (not as finicky as HDMI) and roughly 14 stops of exposure latitude, to name a few. This camera was just what we needed to show every detail of our favorite bikes. Could we also shoot other commercial projects with it? I’m glad you asked.

Recently, we were asked to film a piece for our friends at Zamp Solar in Bend, Oregon. Zamp makes ridiculously cool gear for those on the go and who want to rely on the sun to keep them charged. The catch here was that Zamp requested a FULL 4k final output of 4096x2160. The Sony Fs5 isn’t able to output that resolution to the internal SD slots, even with the optional RAW upgrade license. Strange, but that IS a lot of data. We needed an external monitor/recorder that could capture 4k RAW at 60/120 framerates – and do it well. After much research, we landed on the Odyssey 7Q+ from Convergent Design.

The Convergent Odyssey 7Q+ capturing 4K RAW video on the Sony FS5. Video is downsampled to 1080p for better playback

The above footage is direct from camera with no color grading, so you can see the original quality.  

On and off paper, the 7Q+ is a technological data recording beast. The recorder has (4!) SDI inputs and (4) outputs that can allow for multi-camera monitoring, zebras, histogram and false color for ensuring proper exposure, focus assist, spot metering, image guides for different crop modes, and the ability to preview images with LUTs. (Just took a breath). The best way to describe a LUT (Look Up Table) for someone coming from still photography to video is that it works somewhat like a Lightroom preset. Just like with still photography, most people now are shooting RAW (not IN the raw – that can cause trouble) to get the most information off the camera’s sensor. Same with video, RAW is, well, the RAW image. Imagine a client looking over your shoulder and thinking,” This looks horrible, why did we hire this guy? My sweet orange bikini line looks like something from a Hitchcock movie.” The Odyssey allows you to preview the image with several different LUTs to ensure the image the client sees is one that keeps you on the set. LUTs can also give you an idea what the (color) graded image may look like in post – without the post. This feature alone is huge. The Odyssey records the massive amount of data it collects to two SSD drives, sold separately. While you need to purchase the drives additionally, the Odyssey comes nicely equipped with cables and SSD handles in the box. Kudos Convergent!

Upon receiving the Odyssey and getting more information on the job – it was apparent that we were going to need to operate this device where even the longest extension cord wouldn't reach. I was a bit concerned. After some research, I found that Convergent had thought about this long before I did and manufactured a plate that easily mounts to the back of the Odyssey that enables you to power the unit with the widely available Sony L batteries or Watson equivalent. Those new batteries needed charging, so I purchased the Watson Duo charger and it works flawlessly.

The Odyssey 7Q+ records a number of file formats: Apple ProRes422 (your computer likes these files), uncompressed DPX (your computer may not like you) and RAW (Note to self, learn about Proxy file). Unfortunately, on top of the $1795 price tag of the unit, RAW recording isn’t included. Users have two options at present to unlock RAW capability on the 7Q+: A one time $695 fee, or a daily license rate of $99. We opted for the daily license.

To purchase a daily licence for your Odyssey you’ll need to set up an account at the Convergent website http://convergent-design.com . From there, you can register your particular unit/serial number. Once you purchase a license, the license key is emailed to you along with a receipt.

My first order attempt failed as Convergent were having some technical issues with their website. I contacted them to let them know I was having difficulty and received a very quick response and fix. In fact, for my trouble they gave me an additional day license.

Once I had the license key, I struggled to get the key to install using a alpha numeric code within the menu system. This may or not have been user error. Okay, it was user error. I’m just going to throw out that there is, in fact, directions that IF you read – will guide you through the process quickly. I, however, skimmed. Apparently, there are two ways to access the license key install in the menu, and I was in the wrong joint. The point of this is that you should always read the directions but more so, the customer service of Convergent is unparalleled. Quick response after quick response, and all the while they were genuinely interested in helping get things rolling.

Mounting the Odyssey to the camera cage didn’t seem like it was going to be an issue, just use an articulating arm, right? Please, please hear this: Do not buy a cheap articulating arm. Saving money here gives you the ability to file an insurance claim on your brand new Odyssey 7Q+, or leave town quickly whilst your friend wonders what became of you – and his beloved device. We had several close calls by using what we thought was a good articulating arm. Better yet, use a monitor extension arm or put the Odyssey in an enclosure and mount to a tripod or c-stand if possible.

Once we were safe from the revolving monitor, using the Odyssey was a blast. The 7.7” touchscreen OLED screen is brilliant. While it won’t win any design awards, the menu system is very easy to follow even for the first time user – especially for those who read directions. The viewing angle of the monitor is somewhere in the 170+ degree range which makes it easy for clients to peek over your shoulder, isn’t that lovely? If you plan on shooting outdoors, I recommend investing in the Hoodman HCD7 made for the Odyssey to keep glare off. I didn’t have this piece while filming outdoors and let’s just say a few shots are fairly “artistic” in nature…

There are multiple ways to set-up recording on the 7Q+. You can set record to initiate by pressing the big red record button on the monitor, or by allowing the camera to initiate when you hit record. I opted to have the camera control the 7Q+ and found it to work well. I could also make a case for initiating on the Odyssey. I have, from time to time, been known to “think” I was hitting record. Therapy should help. So. Many. Missing. Clips…

Playback on the Odyssey is as simple as toggling the record/playback button, from there you can watch the previous clip, or scroll through a thumbnail list of the day's action. The 7Q+ allows you to easily scrub through clips, give text notations to clips, and flag in and outs – that’s huge! Imagine an editor who wasn’t on set having to scrub through every clip to find selects. Those selects can now be set by the 7Q+ operator. Even if you’re acting as DP on set as well as editor for the piece, this function can save you time.

Offloading the files from the 7Q+ is a breeze. One needs to simply shut down the device (you must power down before ejecting your SSD’s or your clips won’t be visible – I learned this by reading the directions) pull out the SSD’s, and connect them to your computer via the included cable, or by using a USB or Thunderbolt SSD dock. This is a good time to remind you to check the Convergent website for a list of approved SSD’s.

Yes, it’s pretty. It has a ton of options. It’s upgradable and the customer service is amazing. So, what’s not to like? It’s easy not to enjoy the cost of such a device, especially when you need to pay additionally to unlock special features – an “in app” purchase if you will. That coupled with additional items like SSD’s, battery plates, field batteries and an extra charger can be a bit overwhelming. When you realize the quality the 7Q+ gives you and the potential time savers like notation and marking in and outs, it helps to ease the financial pain.

I know I’ve mentioned customer service and support, but it’s nice to know that you’re not buying an expensive piece of gear to be left out in a field, alone, if something isn’t working right. I wasn’t a big fan of the on-line website/license key process, but a one-time RAW upgrade payment would take care of that.

My only other beef with the unit is the way the files are sometimes split. What? When going through my files in Premiere Pro, I noticed that many of them were split, cut in half, separate, divorced. I manually reunited them. Not terrible on a small job, but horrible for a larger production. After a quick reply from Convergent support, this is common given the way the 7Q+ has structured the file system (4GB max, Fat32.) An easy fix, but an additional step, is to use the free software from Convergent that turns all the clips into a single .mov per track and also optimizes the files for playback on your computer. That’s like having to drive 5 extra miles for some really good Thai food.

The pros far outweigh any cons with this device, and any storyteller looking for the highest quality recording with their FS5 would find it a welcome addition to their gear bag.

I’ve included a few files for you to check out. First, a still image straight from the Fs5. By enabling RAW recording in the device, every frame we shot (60 per second) were each a 4096x2160 file. Nearly a 7x14 inch image! That is an insane amount of data – of which you can pull very nice still frames from. Talk about making your client happy. Coupled to the FS5 for these shots was the Nikon 70-200 2.8G ED VRII lens, one of my favorites on the Super 35 format for a film like look.

The Convergent Odyssey 7Q+ capturing 4K RAW video on the Sony FS5. Video is down-sampled to 1080p for better playback

The above footage is direct from camera with no color grading, so you can see the original quality.

Also included, a couple of video files straight out of the FS5 and onto the Odyssey7Q+. No color correction, no stabilization, 60 fps, shot in sLog2 (a very flat picture profile used when a lot of post production and color grading is planned for the footage.) These files have been downsized from the original 4k resolution to 1080p.

We’re still a few weeks out from a final export, but I have no doubt the graded footage is going to be spectacular, especially on the client's full 4k TV.

The Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+ is an amazing production tool and we highly recommended it. Granted, we don't know everything about 4k video or filmmaking – but we’re learning. With video especially, we’ve found that using the right tool for the job can make all the difference on set and in post-production.

Now, if only Convergent Design really made Thai food…

Leaning in to Italy

Fresh asphalt chew marks scarred the once shiny chrome handlebar slider. The left turn signal had been pulled from its socket and was now blinking in the wrong direction. The shifter, while still functional, was forcefully contorted in to a “V” rather than its traditional “L” shape.

“Are you OK?”, I asked. She let out a sigh of frustration, pause, then a nod, and together we hoisted the BMW F800 GT to its feet. Two minutes later, I heard it crunch to the ground again.

6 Months ago she didn’t even know how to ride a motorcycle. 5 months ago she signed up for a Motorcycle Photography tour around central Italy. Her friends thought she was crazy, reckless, maybe just a bit too optimistic. They were probably right, and yet their doubt simply fueled her determination.

4 months ago she got her motorcycle license, then bought her first used bike – a classic 80’s machine with shiny chrome and a low-slung seat. Her legs were a little too long for the bike, but she didn’t know any better. She was in love. She started to embark on solo rides through the quiet canyons and hills of Colorado, and felt the immediate freedom and exhiliration of piloting your own motorcycle – along with the anxiety of the inherent risks. 

Her new mentors taught her to “lean in” – a practical bit of advice, but also a poignant moto metaphor to, "Face Your Fears". 3 months later, she was on a plane to Italy – to ride.

The thick smell of oil & gasoline could not entirely mask the trepidation in the air as we inspected the rental bikes in the undergroundgarage, below the city of Roma. We would be boarding unfamiliar motorcycles, some larger and more powerful than we had ever ridden before, and launching ourselves directly in to the morning rush-hour traffic of one of the busiest cities in Europe. Romans are not known for being patient, nor particularly forgiving, drivers. The words, “Crash Course” came to mind, but I tactfully avoided using them aloud.

The riders were excitedly checking their gear and buckling their protection, adjusting mirrors and playing with buttons. but I noticed she was not smiling yet.

“Lean in”, she said quietly with a long breath – more as an affirmation to herself than a suggestion to anyone in particular.

The engines roared to life and the sweet sound of five large-bore BMWs and one Moto Guzzi, singing in unison, echoed off the garage walls. Kickstands up. The morning sun flared off our bug-free face shields as we emerged from the dark cave in to the bustling streets of Roma. 

Breaking free of the city was nerve-wracking. Max, our Italian lead rider, forewarned us to stay together and “ride aggressively” – not exactly the “ride defensively” tactic that is drilled in to us during our first safety classes back home in the states. In Roma, you lane split or you are pushed to the side. You jockey for pole position at every stop light, then launch for the lead – less your rear tire becomes a black skid mark on the front bumper of an old Fiat. Vespa riders put you to shame, passing on your left, right, front, and back. We quickly learned that if we didn’t ride aggressively, we’d be trampled by the herd. 

Within an hour we were out of the capital, and void of incident. We pulled to the side of the road – now finally starting to twist and turn its way in to the beautiful sunny hillside, and did a quick check-in. She was a bit shaky, but realized the hardest part was behind her, and let out a sigh of relief.

“That freaked me out, I’m not gonna lie”. Her voice had the slight vibrato of a nervous singer performing her first operetta. 

We consoled each other with audible deep breaths and a round of the most genuine, and deserved, high-fives. The smiles came freely now, and we were on our way.

Over the course of the following week, we carved through some of the most beautiful countryside you could imagine. We visited tiny villas, medieval castles, and ate at intimate agriturismo restaurants nestled deep in the hills. We negotiated flowing S-curved roads that swept back and forth like smooth, grey rivers. We cautiously traversed shiny cobblestone roads in ancient villages, designed long before the advent of the rubber tire and more than one horsepower. The random gravel roads we encountered became the nemesis of the new riders. U-turns on gravel, their arch-rival. Yet, each new encounter with this “ancient asphalt” (as Max began to call it) fostered an increase in confidence among the riders. They soon realized that gravel equaled adventure, and inevitably led us to another smooth road less-travelled.  

By the end of the week she had dropped her bike twice. And picked it up twice. She was not hurt, just more determined. She had ridden farther, faster, and on more challenging roads, then ever before. She had ridden before sunrise to watch its warmth illuminate a tiny village, and the perfect twisty road. She was beaming with confidence and a sense of accomplishment. This is what “leaning in” is all about and she was living it, and feeling more alive than ever.

I was privledged to witness all the riders on this trip overcome their own internal obstacles, fears, and hesitations – and to face them head on. Some worked through challenges on the motorcycle, some through personal baggage they carried for many years. They were noticeably stronger, bolder, and more confident by the end of the journey. I had not expected to see this, only to lead a motorcycle photography tour and binge on gourmet food.

Of course, I had my own fears before embarking on this journey. I was indirectly responsible for a group of riders on their first foray through some of the most challenging roads in Italy. No pressure, right?! Would the weather cooperate? Would we all have fun? Would I eat too much pasta and fall victim to a food coma while riding? Would one of us plummet off a cliff in an exploding ball of fire? Honestly, my biggest fear was that we would all come home un-changed. None the wiser, nothing to talk about. 

As fate would have it, each of us had a tremendous opportunity to exercise our Lean In. I don’t believe that true growth can really happen without welcoming that which scares you with outstretched arms. We faced these medieval dragons and fought them, coming out the other side as braver, stronger humans.

On our last day, we had to descend from the beautiful rolling hills and re-enter the pulsing heart of Roma to return the bikes. This time we’d be going right through the core of the city, through denser post-work traffic, twice the distance of the day we exited the iconic landmark. Max, normally light-hearted and joking, delivered a stern warning: “Please, stay together and ride aggressively. Do not fall behind or you will be lost.”

We zigged and zagged, dodged and weaved, and put our bad-ass faces on. She rode up front this time, positioning herself with intention, and refused to let scooter guy muscle her out of the way. She was smooth and confident, aggressive, but not reckless, and I followed with quiet admiration. She was a different rider now – with an air of authority about her. 

We worked our way back through the labyrinth of Roma to the underground garage, home of our borrowed bikes. Off the busy street and down the curving driveway we purred, tires squeaking on the concrete as we parked the tired beasts in their stalls. 

She rolled to a stop, pulled off her helmet, and with a glowing smile exclaimed, “That wasn’t so bad!" 

If you'd like info on one of our photography workshops, or a MotoPhoto tour, pop on over to KubotaImageTools.com