Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fuji Tele-zoom Lens and some Music Masters

I attended the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival this past Saturday which afforded me the opportunity to give my Fujinon 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 OIS lens a real test in extreme shooting conditions. Besides taking pictures, I had a blast meeting with some old friends who were performing as the Masters Of Bluegrass Band (back in June I heard this same band and wrote blog posts about that experience here and here)

First the photography business. I almost never shoot at the focal lengths of this lens. When I do, ninety-nine percent of the time it's performance photography. I need a lens that is razor sharp at the focus point, can open wide enough to afford a pleasingly soft background texture, and can nail colors so that I can easily manage the difficult lighting conditions that stage lights create. I've used this lens before for concerts, but not for outdoor night performances with all kinds of color lights with a mixture of color temperatures thrown in. I was quite pleased with the results. All the shots below were taken at an ISO of either 1600 or 3200, a focal length of 200mm or thereabouts, an aperture of f4.8 (wide open), and a 1/60th second shutter speed. That focal length - effectively 300mm on a full frame camera - and that shutter speed would have rendered the images totally useless without the Fuji optical image stabilization, which performed outstandingly well.

I am totally committed to my Fuji X system and have learned over the past year and a half to work with its idiosyncrasies. And Fuji is to be commended for the dedication they have shown in optimizing and updating the system with firmware updates - especially the focus issues that were manifest in early system development. But the shooting experience was not totally awesome. Probably because I'm not used to or adept at shooting at such a long focal length I found the focus time to be a tiny bit slower than I would have liked, which meant that I often missed catching an interesting facial expression. By the later part of the set, however, I'd worked out how to get the focus set and wait patiently (which, by the way, does not come naturally to me) for the shot I wanted. I was quite pleased with the results.

The second issue I had in shooting with the lens is that I normally always used the optical view finder. Understandably with this long a focal length, that would be impossible because the area of coverage would be a dot in the viewfinder, so using the electronic viewfinder is a necessity. My problem wasn't with the restricted area of view, but rather with the harshness and glare of the optical quality. I'm sure Fuji is improving this with each new camera release, so I'd expect that by the time the Fuji X-Pro 2 hits the market (no idea when that would be) this issue would be resolved.

Now for the really important stuff, about the band and the music. First I have to say, and I'm not making excuses for myself, that shooting performances like this are a bitch. It's impossible to get a good sight line where a microphone, cable or mic stand isn't in the way. Compounded with having to climb over and around people in the audience - who seem to get a real attitude about photographers getting in their way, imagine that!) and add all that to my aging body which does not want to cooperate and it's a tough experience.

The personnel is Del McCoury - guitar, Bobby Osborne - Mandolin, J.D. Crowe - banjo, Bobby Hicks - fiddle, Jerry McCoury - bass.When the emcee introduced the band she said it looked like Mt Rushmore. The two Bobby's are octogenarians, Del and J.D. are in their seventies, and Jerry is getting close to seventy. Each of them has been performing bluegrass professionally for close to 50 years. The performance was loose, to say the least. But that was part of the charm and fun of the performance. At one point Del introduced his next song as Blue Ridge Cabin Home - it's a standard and a classic in the genre. Bobby Hicks kicked the tune off on fiddle, and when Del started to sing the first verse was from an entirely different song - They Tell Me Your Love Is Like A Flower - which the band had never before performed. If Del hadn't laughed and joked with the audience about it, you'd have never known there was a mistake. Over two hundred years of performance experience sure does account for something.

I'm partial, I love all these guys. When I was learning my music and developing my chops to get ready to play with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, these guys were my idols, especially Bobby Hicks. His fiddle playing on the Bill Monroe classic recordings of the 1950's bore the distinctive stamp of someone with 'grass in his blood'. There were Saturday nights when I got into my car and drove to the top of a mountain close by my home (ok, a small hill -  but it was high) so I could try to catch a broadcast on WSM of the Grand Ole Opry and hear Flatt & Scruggs, Monroe, or Jim & Jesse McReynolds, or on the WWVA Jamboree from Wheeling, West Virginia to hear the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, or Earl Taylor. These are heady times for bluegrass music, when these artists leave the stage, I'm afraid it's going to be a downhill slide of generic cookie cutter bands.

Del McCoury

Bobby Osborne

Bobby Hicks

J.D. Crowe

Jerry McCoury