Jazz

Tommy Smith OBE

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A massive congratulations to Tommy Smith, who has been awarded an OBE in the 2019 New Year honours list for services to jazz. An award that is so well deserved and possibly a little overdue IMO.

I have been doing all of Tommy’s photography since 2013, so I have seen first hand the hard work and dedication he puts into all things jazz, not to mention his passion for music education. Tommy is also professor of jazz at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, as well as founder and director of The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (which I also do photography for).

Read more about Tommy’s OBE and his reaction to the news HERE.

Bob Reynolds

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I recently had the pleasure of photographing saxophonist Bob Reynolds for a book I've been working on for some time now. The book is about jazz musicians and without giving too much away at this stage, it's a mixture of portraiture, documentary and some live performance stuff thrown in for good measure. At this point in time, the project is solely funded by me, which keeps the progress at a steady pace due to the cost of travel and accommodation.

Bob was currently on his European tour to support his latest CD called Quartet, so I reached out to him as he has been on my hit list for a while. Manchester was the preferred date, which suited me fine as it's only a three and a half hour train journey from where I live in Scotland. A journey that turned out to be really great on the TransPennine, with stunning scenery on a lovely sunny day. I love to travel by any means of transport, so the journey is part of the enjoyment.

After arriving at Manchester Piccadilly station, I headed for the hotel (via The Real Camera store to drool over a couple of tempting Leica's (M6 and M7). Credit card still intact and a little lump in my throat, I had lunch at the hotel before making my way to the oddly named venue Band On The Wall to meet Bob and the band. 

After the usual meet and greets, I set up my small traveling portrait rig, including two light stands three flashguns, a trigger, and two double-fold umbrellas. The weak part of this travel portrait rig is the background.  None of my Lastalite/Manfrotto collapsible backgrounds fold small enough and I can’t find a small headshot background to suit anywhere. So I'm using a small collapsible reflector that my friend John Summers gave me and I clamp a piece of black velvet material to it. It's a bit time consuming and doesn’t look very professional. But it gets the job done

With the portrait shots complete, we went downstairs and I made a few documentary-style pictures in the dressing room as Bob selected a batch of possible reeds for that night's gig. I moved around the room, making sure I had plenty of variety in my shots, changing angles, shooting from a low angle, getting something in the foreground, shooting into mirrors etc. I was shooting in RAW+JPEG but I shot a few B&W JPEG's to let Bob see a few pictures on the back of the camera to give him an idea of how they might look.

After a quick trip back to my hotel to drop off my lights and stands etc, I headed back to the Band On The Wall to shoot the gig. The venue was packed so I had limited space to move around and switched from primes to a couple of zooms for that reason (24-85mm and 75-210mm in 35mm terms, both f2.8). It wasn’t the brightest venue I've shot in, so 1/125th sec at f2.8 meant my ISO was around 3200 for the centre of the stage and anywhere between 6,400 and 12,800 for the sides.

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The gig was very special in my opinion. The energy between musician and audience was something that you don’t always get with jazz gigs, and it was great to see a younger generation of jazz fan so enthusiastic about the music. Bob also plays in the band Snarky Puppy and obviously has a following that includes quite a few Snarky fans as well as his own fan base, which is no doubt expanded with the popularity of Bob's highly addictive vlog on YouTube. 

Pianist Oli Rockberger dept for Ruslan Sirota on the first few gigs of the tour as Ruslan was busy being the best man at his friends' wedding, but  Oli played as though he had been a part of the quartet for years (he and Bob went to Berkeley at the same time). Most of the tracks on Quartet are pretty laid back, so it was great to see Chaun Horton being able to let rip on the drums on some really funky numbers, which were made all the funkier with Janek Gwizdala on the bass. Janek also has a great vlog on YouTube, which is based on the bass (see what I did there), but like Bob’s vlog, is enjoyable to both musicians and non-musicians. Janek is a joy to watch on stage. His bass playing is extraordinary and his use of effects pedals is a lot of fun, especially when a looper pedal is involved.

But the last word has to be on Bob. A fine musician/composer with an equal gift of a warm fat tone on the tenor sax with a great technical ability. One minute you’re listening to a beautiful ballad on the bottom end of his Selmer Mk VI and the next you’re being bombarded with amazing altissimo dexterity that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. 
Bob is exactly what you see on his vlog, a really nice guy with a lot of time and respect for others. This shoot was a real pleasure.

Fujifilm X100F: Tommy Smith - Return To The Mausoleum

I was honoured when the good people of Fujifilm asked me to be part of the Pre-Production testing of the new X100F camera. As a documentary photographer, I've been working on a long term Jazz project for the past 3+ years which has gained a bit of attention recently. It also seemed like a good subject for this X100F assignment, which I had to produce still photographs and a short film.

STEVEN HAWKES

Rather than bring someone up from the south all the way up to Scotland, I suggested to Fuji that I would make the video in partnership with my good friend Steven Hawkes. An interesting fact is that I met Steven because of the original X100. I had reviewed the X100 on my blog and posted many pictures and articles. So when Steven searched the internet looking for information on the camera before he bought one, he found my website. But instead of using the comments section or emailing me, he decided to use the phone. It turned out we were only a few miles from each other, so I asked if he would like to see the camera in the flesh and we met for a coffee. He did buy the X100 after that and we stayed in touch and became really good friends, meeting for coffee often and even going out shooting now and then.

Steven also has a health obsession for video and shoots corporate promo films, so he was the obvious choice when it came to shooting the X100F film.

TOMMY SMITH

Tommy is a jazz saxophonist, composer, band leader and educator. He is Head of Jazz at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and has a list of accomplishments that defy his age. Without Tommy, my jazz project would probably never got off the ground. I was honoured to have been part of his recent composing and recording project with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, producing pictures for the CD and even on the front cover of Jazzwise magazine.

When I told Tommy that I wanted to make a film based around jazz for a pre-production camera, he planted the seed in my brain to use The Hamilton Mausoleum as the location. I had been thinking more about one of Tommy's gigs, but the Mausoleum was a terrific idea. Tommy has a connection with this iconic building as he recorded an album called 'Into Silence' many years before. The building has one of the longest reverbs in Europe and that made it the perfect place for a solo saxophone piece.

HAMILTON MAUSOLEUM

I contacted the extremely helpful folks at The Hamilton Mausoleum the next day and got things rolling. I wasn't sure if I could hire an iconic building like this, but I did and it didn't break the bank either. Even before there day of the hire, Steven and I would meet outside the Mausoleum and shoot all the external scenes that feature in the film. It was winter and frosty outside. We froze our asses of during these shoots, but it was Tommy who suffered the most for our art.

On the day of the shoot, the interior of the Mausoleum was colder than it was outside. I was like being in a fridge and Tommy wore a suit and a pair of leather shoes. I also play saxophone, so I can testify that when it's cold, a sax is not an instrument you want to be holding! Tommy's feet and hands must have been extremely painful for the two hours we kept him there, but he's a pro and didn't complain once.

EDITING THE FILM

Editing proved to be a difficult job. Unlike a regular video edit where you cut to a piece of music used in the background, Tommy played live, so what you see and what you here are from the same shoot. Editing to live music is filled with many problems. But I think Steven and I pulled it off and we're both happy with the results. But the most important people I hope are pleased with the film are of course Fuji and Tommy. Steven and I set out to make something a little different from the average promo film. We think we have, but the viewers will decide.

Jazz With Fuji's Acros & The X-Pro2 - SOOC

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/60th sec at f2.8, ISO 3200 140mm

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/60th sec at f2.8, ISO 3200 140mm

I shot two gigs over the weekend with The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra featuring Norwegian double bass player Arild Andersen. The orchestra were performing The Legacy of Charles Mingus and played a collection of Mingus tunes including the brilliantly titled 'All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother'. The SNJO were on top form as usual and are celebrating their 20th anniversary. Orchestra leader Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen are long time collaborators and play regularly with drummer Paolo Vinaccia as The Arild Andersen Trio.

Most of the jazz photography I do gets converted into black and white in Lightroom, so I decided this weekend I would soot everything using the X-Pro2 and Fuji's newest B&W film simulation Acros. Everything you see here is taken straight out of camera (SOOC) and has not been cropped, sharpened or tweaked in any way (except where mentioned). Some of my exposures tend to lean toward the dark side (I am your father! Huuhhhhh), but I always prefer to bring exposures up in post, rather than bring them down.

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f2.8, ISO 640 140mm

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f2.8, ISO 640 140mm

Acros Film Simulation

Acros in the X-Pro2 and X-T2 is not just a B&W version of one of the colour film simulations (like the other B&W modes in the X-Sereies cameras). It is a ground up custom algorithm of Fuji's Acros film. The grain is beautiful and actually gets better as you increase ISO, in the same way it would react when pushing the original B&W film. My friend Patrick La Roque did some testing on this and found a sweet spot at ISO 2000 (there's a link at the bottom of this post).

My settings for Acros are usually -1 Highlights and +3 Shadows (always -3 Noise reduction and +3 Sharpness). But the lighting conditions at a jazz gig are challenging to say the least. The lights are mostly orange and very harsh. So I adjusted the shadows to +1

The Upside Of Shooting With The X-Pro2 Over The X-T1

I typically shoot jazz gigs with two X-T1 bodies with the 50-140mm f2.8 on one and a wide prime (35mm or 16mm) on the other. But as the X-T1 doesn't have the Acros film simulation, I used the X-Pro2, which was good because I also wanted to see the difference between the X-T1's 16 megapixel sensor and the X-Pro2's 24 megapixel sensor. I've been using the X-Pro2 for a while now, but I'm so used to shooting jazz with the X-T1's, I knew I would see the difference easier.

The X-Pro2 is definitely a big step up in resolution and although I'm not a guy that always wants more in the megapixel department, the new 24 megapixel sensor is very welcome. I used to shoot jazz gigs with a Nikon D800, 70-200mm f2.8 and an X-T1 for the wide end. But when Fuji released the 50-140mm f2.8, the D800 was retired. The only downside was loosing the D800's 36mp resolution. But seeing the black and white X-Pro2 files in Lightroom and zooming in to 1:1, it looks like I have it back. It is 24mp compared to the D800's 36mp, but with the lack of a low pass filter on the Fuji sensor, I would say there's not a lot of difference. But on the plus side the grain is really nice on the Acros film simulation.

The Downside Of Shooting With The X-Pro2 Over The X-T1

I love the style of the X-Pro cameras and definitely prefer the rangefinder design to the X-T's DSLR style. But there are a couple of negatives.

1. The X-Pro2's viewfinder is smaller than the epic X-T1's. I don't mint that too much in general, but for gigs and portraits, I do like the luxury of the larger one.

2. I need that big ass 50-140mm f2.8 glass for live shows. It sits well on my X-T1's with the grips attached, but it is just too front heavy on the X-Pro2. I already had a leather camera strap attached to the camera, so didn't use the BlackRapid I normally use on the bottom of the lens. I made sure to hold the lens and not the camera as I think the weight of the 50-140mm is a bit too much strain to put on the lens mount. Shooting with the X-Pro2 was definitely not as comfortable as shooting with the X-T1's, but just as far as the 50-140mm goes. I shot the soundcheck with primes, which was ideal with the X-Pro2.

X-Pro2, 56mm f1.2: 1/125th sec at f2.8, ISO 3200

X-Pro2, 56mm f1.2: 1/125th sec at f2.8, ISO 3200

X-Pro2, 56mm f1.2: 1/125th sec at f2.8, ISO 3200

Grain

The image above is a crop of the previous one and shows both the fantastic resolution of the X-Pro2's 24mp sensor and the beautiful film-like grain in Acros. You can see it clearly on the edge of the piano lid (the bright diagonal line). You don't see it as defined on the face, but it blends with the skin to produce a really rich texture. I'm looking for a timeless quality to my jazz work, pictures that would sit side by side with anything from the Blue Note era and Acros hits the mark!

X-Pro2, 56mm f1.2: 1/1000th sec at f1.2, ISO 3200

X-Pro2, 56mm f1.2: 1/1000th sec at f1.2, ISO 3200

Straight Out Of Camera...Really?

Moving to the Fuji X-Series cameras has brought many advantages to my photography. I started out with the original X100 when it was released and the size of the camera and the quality of the picture was great. The X-Trans sensor came a year later with the X-Pro1 and that, along with the best lenses I have ever used, gave me the sharpness of a mother-in-law's tongue and colours that I was unable to get out of Nikon.

Post processing can be enjoyable to an extent, but not when you have hundreds of pictures from a job and maybe a backlog of a few jobs. The X-Series produces JPEG's out of the camera that save me so much time due to them being most of the way there. My dream is to one day shoot in-camera JPEG's that need no work other than choosing the ones to deliver to the client. I think Acros just might have made this a reality! As long as you nail the exposure, you will have a great B&W photograph (obviously you need subject and composition to go with this).

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f3.6, ISO 3200

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f3.6, ISO 3200

A Little Tamperfering

The picture above is straight out of camera. It is a little underexposed for my liking, even though I do like my B&W's to be contrasty, dark and moody. So I made a couple of minor adjustments in Lightroom to bring it up to where I would tend to have it (see below). I moved the Exposure Slider to +0.50 and Clarity Slider to +15. I tend to add +15 clarity to all my files after importing into Lightroom so this is normal. That's about all I would do with this picture. As a rule of thumb, I tend to only do darkroom style editing to my pictures (exposure, dodge and burn etc).

+0.50 exposure and +15 Clarity in Lightroom takes this to where I like it.

+0.50 exposure and +15 Clarity in Lightroom takes this to where I like it.

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f2.8, ISO 3200 140mm

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f2.8, ISO 3200 140mm

Acros Plus Red, Green or Yellow Filters?

A colour filter was a useful addition to the front of your lens when shooting B&W film. They would help to emphasize parts of your photographs, like darkening the blue sky or improving skin tones. Fuji have not only given us the standard Acros film simulation, but an additional three versions that simulate a red, green or yellow filter.

Across +R (red) tends to be a good all rounder, but didn't work on this occasion due to the orange stage light, which made the faces too light with the red filter. I have the film simulations on one of the D-Pad buttons, and it's really helpful that you can scroll through each one and see the effect in the viewfinder. I settled on Acros + G (green) during the soundcheck and although I'm 80% sure I made the right choice, I would like to bracket these in a future experiment to make sure.

X-Pro2, 56mm f1.2: 1/125th sec at f2, ISO 3200

X-Pro2, 56mm f1.2: 1/125th sec at f2, ISO 3200

Conclusion

Over all I'm happy with how the two Acros shoots went. It's strange when I put the viewfinder to my eye and see a B&W image in the EVF because I expect to see colour as I normally would. I should have tried the optical viewfinder, but I don't like the OVF with longer lenses because the picture area ends up being a tiny box in the viewfinder.

I would love the option of shooting a film simulation to each card. Acros to slot 1 and Classic Chrome to slot 2 would be great. Obviously I could shoot Acros to one card and a RAW file to another, but I would then need to spend the time processing the RAW file to look like a finished Classic Chrome JPEG with the Noise Reduction, Sharpness, Highlights and Shadows settings that I prefer to use. I could also bracket film simulations, but that only works in 3's and there is too much of a lag after each shot.

I wonder if Fuji could take the same algorithm they have developed for Acros and use it to add a similar organic grain to Classic Chrome. I don't know if this would fit with the type of film it replicates, but who knows. Maybe for higher ISO's?

Maybe I need to upgrade to the X-T2 after all.

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f3.6, ISO 3200 50mm

X-Pro2, 50-140mm f2.8: 1/125th sec at f3.6, ISO 3200 50mm