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Masterclass Review: Zeiss & Greg Watermann

I was very fortunate to attend a workshop sponsored by Zeiss, with Greg Watermann, the famed rock star photographer. This was their first Rock N Roll Lens Party, and what a spectacular way to expose photographers to Zeiss lenses, and to provide them with some absolutely wonderful information from a legend in the entertainment industry. I hope that they repeat this event for others in the future, but for now, I'm just going to offer a quick recap of both the Zeiss side of things, and the Greg Watermann side of things.

(Canon 5DIV, Zeiss Milvus 15mm f/2.8, 1/100 sec - image by Mark Morris)

Zeiss Glass

The whole point of this four-hour masterclass was to expose the attendees to the options offered by Zeiss. They had a table-full of lenses that were available for all of the attendees to shoot throughout the night. I have to confess, as a Canon shooter, I'm not convinced this was the absolute best type of shoot to expose shooters to Zeiss lenses. Why? Because on the Canon system, they are all manual focus. I shot a 15mm lens for a while, at the request of a reader that wanted some images to compare to the Canon 16-35. I also spent a bit of time with the 35mm 1.4. The thing is, we only had 45 minutes to actually shoot the band in action, and I was spending more time getting used to achieving sharp focus than I was being artistic or creative with any of my shots. So, after a short time of trying the Zeiss glass, I actually switched over to my familiar lenses for the remainder of the time.

(Canon 5DIV, Canon 70-200 f/2.8 at 70mm, 1/200 sec - image by Mark Morris)

Greg Watermann

Greg was a treasure-trove of information. For anyone who is not familiar with his work, he has been the photographer for a many acts in the music industry. Just a glance at the portfolio page on his website is like a who's-who in the rock scene for the past twenty-five years. He has shot the likes of Christina Aguilera, Coldplay, Jay Z, Linkin Park, Nirvana, Pitbull, Snoop Dog, Stone Temple Pilots, System of a Down and so many others! He shared a number of stories from his time inside the music industry.

Low Cut Connie image by Greg Watermann

(image by Greg Watermann)

Greg is definitely an ideal choice as a brand ambassador for Zeiss. He pointed out at the beginning of the workshop that he has no other sponsorships or associations with brands/manufacturers. He actually shared advice about becoming a brand ambassador that was very helpful, I think - "Don't even try." His point was that he used Zeiss for decades, and eventually they reached out to him, not the other way around. He offered a lot of wisdom in this point of view, in that a photographer should really just focus on creating images, and not spend a lot of time trying to hashtag images in an attempt to get the attention of the manufacturer.

The reality is, a 'celebrity photographer' could very easily morph a masterclass like this into a "look at my work" type session. Greg masterfully showed enough of his work to let everyone know how much expertise was behind his opinions on various issues, while not stepping over the line into an "it's all about me" type of session. The session was four hours long, and we spent the first hour looking at some of Greg's work, and then discussing how he operates. He discussed specifics in regard to his shooting technique, and the gear that he has used at various points in his career. Sprinkled in throughout this entire conversation were plenty of participant questions, which he answered joyfully. One of the most enjoyable things about his presentation was the openness with which he shared information that some others might consider "closely guarded trade secrets."

On Social Media

One topic that jumped out at me was Greg's views on sharing images on social media, as well as his own presence on social media. First thing you will notice, is that Greg doesn't even have a Facebook account. He does have an Instagram, but he's not exceptionally active on the account. The question came up a few times about watermarking images. I'll interject here that I have actually changed my viewpoint on watermarking over the past several years. I used to watermark all of my images shared on social media. In the past few years, I started to get really annoyed with the extent that a watermark wrecks the image, and I stopped using one. Greg also feels that it's not good to use a watermark, but his perspective is different. In his opinion, a watermarked image looks like an image that was shot for free. He suggested that if you want the image to look as though it was shot as professional work, not to watermark it.

Gear & Settings Advice

Greg is currently shooting the Sony A9. He discussed the advantages of mirrorless systems over DSLRs for concert photography. The two main things he pointed out were that with mirrorless you can see your exact exposure in the viewfinder, before you take the shot, and the other great thing is that it is silent, when you are shooting in a dressing room, or meeting, or some area where the sound would be intrusive. Obviously in the middle of a rock concert, that second one isn't an issue, but when you are trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, it can be a big help. When dealing specifically with Zeiss, there is also the fact that Zeiss offers auto-focusing lenses for Sony the & Fuji mirrorless, but not for DSLRs (i.e. Canon & Nikon).

(image by Greg Watermann)

As far as settings, Greg shoots virtually everything at 1/100 second, and as wide open as the lens will go. He uses the ISO adjustment to ensure an accurate exposure. 1/100 leaves some motion blur, which gives the images a very specific look. He isn't trying to stop the action in a sharp, frozen image, but rather to convey the movement and motion of the bands in action. Greg has reached a point in his career where there is a definitive "look" that is Greg Watermann. From my own perspective, I actually prefer a sharp freeze in the action most of the time. That's simply a matter of personal preference, but I would definitely say that slowing the shutter down to 1/100 would certainly allow more options in terms of light. Shooting a bit faster can mean VERY high ISOs in a concert setting.

Never Blow Out the Highlights

(Canon 5DIV, Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/1.4, 1/100 sec @ f/2 - image by Mark Morris)

This is advice that I have always heard from every concert photographer I have ever spoken to. When shooting with stage lighting, you want to make sure that you are not blowing out the highlights. If you do, that part of the image can never be recovered, at all. Blown out = ruined. On the other hand, if you expose so that the brightest lights are NOT blowing out, you can always pull up shadows and darks in post-production. I know from my own experience, that I always turn on the highlight alerts when shooting concerts, so that they blink when blown out. It's an outstanding bit of advice.

Advice on becoming a Concert Photographer

Greg offered some fantastic advice on breaking in to the music/concert photography business. He suggested doing anything possible to avoid being 'that guy in the pit with a pass to shoot the first three songs.' I have been that guy, and I confess to looking over at the 'full access' photographers with deep-seated jealously. While the guys in the pit for the first three songs do get some neat images, they will all be getting the SAME images (nearly so, of course.) The advice he offered was to find a young band that is severely in need of images, and shoot for them at a bunch of shows. Get the behind-the-scenes images, the band chilling out, on the bus, all the stuff that an all-access photographer would get. Build out a portfolio that is basically a "yearbook" for the band, and then shop that portfolio to bigger bands. As you get a bigger-name band on board to hire you, do the same, and shop the portfolios to even bigger bands, and just keep repeating the process. Of course at any point, one of those up-and-coming bands could break out, and you have all their images.

On Copyright and Image Theft

Greg shared his perspective on chasing down stolen images, and copyright infringements. He freely admits that his opinion is not necessarily in line with other professionals, but when he shares something out to the internet, he basically considers it "out in the public." He doesn't spend any energy trying to lock down images that are out in the public arena. Obviously, Greg Watermann is in a place with his photography where he has a roof over his head, and his livelihood is secured. I could see where starving photographers who are not solvent from a business standpoint would have a very different feeling about stolen images. But Greg's view is that as a developing photographer, you CRAVE a viral image. You long for something to go viral. Once it does, you will certainly do whatever you can to use that famous image to move yourself on in your career, but protecting images for a living is just a circular pursuit that doesn't really get you anywhere.

Overall Opinion of the Workshop

This four-hour workshop was absolutely fantastic. The atmosphere was incredibly friendly and open. There really were no limits on the information offered by Greg, and the various representatives from Zeiss. The hands-on opportunity with the lenses was also fantastic. As I mentioned earlier in the article, the extremely low-light/fast moving setting might not be ideal for breaking folks in with manual focus Zeiss lenses. I think as they do more of these types of sessions they should find some diverse subject areas. Something where you can REALLY lock down amazing focus, then compare their sharpness and resolution to competitors glass would probably highlight the exceptional properties of Zeiss lenses a bit better. But, as a stand-alone opinion of this workshop, it was absolutely terrific. I would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to attend one in the future!

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