Saturday, December 31, 2011

On The Cheap: The Sunpak 433 D

Living life on the cheap isn't easy, but somebody has to do it.

I believe the Vivitar 283 is a worthy flash because of its very affordable price. Of course, times change, and the while the flash itself is still quite reasonably priced, one key accessory, the VP-1, has gone completely out of sight so far as price is concerned.

You see, the VP-1, when installed on a 283, allows you to vary the flash output from a full power dump to 1/32 power. This allows for repeatability of light output and faster re-cycle time when you don't need full power. But the cost of the VP-1 has passed the $40.00 mark on EBay, pricing a 283 plus a VP-1 package well north of $70.00. At this price, it makes a Vivitar 285 a more affordable option, since it already has stepped power outputs when used in the manual mode. Both of these Vivitars accept the Wein Peanut Slave for off-camera use. And both have tilting heads. Neither one will ever sit in a hotshoe,  however.  I just don't trust either one of them. Don't get me started about triggering voltages.

The Sunpak 433D
Now for a lesser known option. While following a Strobist thread, references were made to the Sunpak 433D flash. I did an EBay search and found one for $20.00 plus shipping, which I immediately bought. When it arrived, I found it pretty well worn and dedicated for use on a Canon camera. Not a problem, since I wouldn't use it on-camera anyway. But it could do some interesting things. First off, It has manual settings of full, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth power. The head not only tilts, but also rotates a full 180 degrees clockwise, and 150 degrees counter-clockwise.

The Black Plastic Thingie: A Do It Yourself Project 
This is not  be confused with the "Black Foamie Thing", a ridiculously simple, Do-It-Yourself light modifier invented by Neil van Niekerk, a virtuoso on-camera flash photographer.

Because of their current configurations, speedlights must be mounted far above the axis when used with umbrella stand adapters. This misalignment could, under certain circumstances, cause some problems. I wanted to make something that could eliminate that particular problem.

For my project, I selected a small sheet of 1/4" thick black plastic from the scrap bin at Tap Plastics. It was about 5" X 10", and cost me all of $.50 cents. When I got it home, I used a  band saw to cut off a 2 1/2" wide piece, the approximate width of a Nikon SB-800 speedlight. Next, I drilled three 1/4" holes along the center line. I then attached a brass spigot using an allen-head 1/4 X 20 screw. I put a small washer between the screw and the plastic to prevent cracking. I then notched the edges with a file to keep my ball-bungee from slipping. The file, incidentally, was a narrow, cylindrical file used to sharpen chain saw blades.  

Here it is, top and bottom. The two large holes in the corners are for attaching lanyards like those found on wireless speedlight triggers.

Attaching The Speedlight

In this shot you can see the Sunpak attached with a short ball bungee. If you look closely, you can see that the head of the allen head screw keeps the flash from sliding backward. A Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce dome has been attached to the head and a Calumet Wireless Trigger (receiver) attached to the hot shoe. If I needed to hang a wireless receiver, the lanyard could be attached through the large hole I drilled in the corner.

Once mounted, I discovered that the thumb screw on the umbrella stand adapter interferes with the BPT. I'll probably trim the thumb screw wings with a belt sander when I get a chance. On second thought, it would be easier to just saw off the back section of the BPT and re-drill the rear lanyard hole.

Because of the 330 degree head rotation,the Sunpak's body could be rotated to make the controls easier to see. If Nikon speedlights were being used, the sensor eye could be rotated to obtain a suitable line-of-site orientation.

This all being done, I now have a means of moving the flash closer to the umbrella axis for more even light distribution. It also makes it easier to install a Photek Softlighter, the topic of a future post.

See you in 2012!

Update: July 23, 2015: Who would have thought any posting this old would be updated? Well, here it comes. I tested a 433d "dedicated" to Canon cameras to see what the triggering voltage was. Turns out that it was 11.9 volts, too high to be considered safe for a digital Canon camera. Just thought you might like to know.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Nap Time At The San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo celebrated the coming of winter in a big way on Wednesday. The polar bear habitat was converted into a winter wonderland with the help of the San Francisco Ice Company. It donated 10 tons of ice which it converted to snow and blew into the enclosure. In addition, zoo staff served the bears ‘popsicles’ made with fish, carrots, honey and meat juice. Uulu, having finished her winter treat, looks ready to take a nap.

San Mateo Daily Journal, December 24, 2011

I hope your holiday was as much fun as Uulu's seems to have been.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ho Ho Ho!

I was looking for someone to photograph, so I called my friend Cindy to see if I could photograph her dog Maggie. Maggie is a very special dog, one that seems to have a quiet dignity about her, calmly taking everything in stride. And yet, she shows a bit of mischief when she greets visitors to her home. She starts by bringing out a favorite squeaky toy as if to say, "Look what belongs to me!" as a reminder of just whose house this really was.

I was prepared to make a photo that everybody, including Maggie, would be pleased with. I came with 3 speedlights and two light stands with Zumbrellas attached. I would be relying on the a camera-mounted SB-900 to act as a commander and the two SB-800s serving as key (main light) and "kicker"*. The lens, a 60mm Macro, was mounted on an D80 body. This was a good call, since a dog portrait would be much smaller than that of a human adult. White balance was set to Cloudy because I wanted to add a little warmth to the Maggie's coat and the hardwood floors. Exposure data: 1/125 second, F 5.6, ISO 200.

When I'm working in somebody's home I am always reluctant to move furniture and such, so when Maggie seemed content to lay on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, that's where the shot was going to be taken. Let the subject has some input in the final image, I say, especially when I'm not fluent in "dog".

Lighting was simple. For a main or "key" light, I pointed one Zumbrella directly at her, high on camera right. The second speedlight, a kicker, had a Honl snoot wrapped around it and aimed at the back of Maggie's head. I dialed the output way down to just barely gave some separation from the background. You can see it just lighting the tips of her ears and where it grazed the right side of her head.

As you can probably tell from the vantage point, I was lying on the floor when these photos were made. When Maggie looked up, I continued to shoot, but found out later that the skimming back light was now glancing off of her snout. You can see the highlight on the right side of her head, but what you can't see was the "hot spot" along the side of her snout. I burned** it a bit in Elements. Because the back light was not overpowering, the result of the burning is barely detectable.

Martian Dog: I initially used my camera mounted speedlight to provide some fill. I set it to minus 2 2/3 stops, just enough to add some detail. Instead, what I got was  "Martian Dog", a condition where the pupils appear to be green and iridescent. The same phenomena in humans is called "red eye", which occurs when a light is placed too close to the axis of the camera lens when photographing in subdued light. The dilation of the subject's pupils allows a large "hole" for light to enter and then scatter about the inside of the eyeball. In humans, the "red" comes from the capillaries that coat the inner surface of the eye. In dogs, deer, and probably many other animals, the reflected color becomes an eerie green. Obviously "red eye removal" wasn't going to work, since there wasn't any red to begin with. I finally settled on "painting" the pupil with a color selected from the eye itself. Until I find a better way to deal with this, this method would have to do.


I think this final shot was Maggie's way of telling me, "You're not so special", as her gaze appears to reflect her lack of interest in the whole endeavor. Or perhaps all of that quiet dignity evaporated when as she realized she was wearing a tiny Santa hat.

Dogs have feelings too, you know.

Celebrate the holiday season in a way that makes me proud that I'm your friend.

* A kicker light comes from behind and provides a highlight around the edge of the subject. So good advice that I'll pass along to you: Don't push too much light, or you'll get a burned edge with no recoverable detail.

**Burning is darkroom technique where additional light is provided to one specific areas to bring the exposure back into line.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When White Balance Matters

A simple assignment: Lester Chun, a music teacher in the Foster City School district for over 30 years, was about to receive an award from the Hillbarn Theatre for his dedication to music instruction. He is flanked by Lee Foster and Christine Krolik, the event's co-chairs.

When I arrived on location, I was immediately taken by the wonderful colonnade just outside the bar. Since the guest of honor had not yet arrived, I decided to see what I could do with the incandescent ambient lighting. I decided to start from the back and work forward. I made this first test shot with the daylight preset, F 4.0, 1/15, ISO 800.

The photo had a nice, warm feeling, but I wanted the subjects and the background to appear as the eye might see it. Since I planned on using flash, the two different color temperatures would certainly lead to some visual disconnect. So I chose the camera's standard Incandescent setting and re-shot the photograph. The results were pleasing and reasonably accurate. See below.

The next part was adding the artificial light. Since the ceiling was already dark, I decided to bounce a flash off the ceiling. This was done by placing a remote flash on the ground and aiming it upward at an angle. A used a blinder to shield the lens from the incoming light. I also installed a Nikon incandescent gel to better match the ambient lights. If you look closely, you can see the flash near the lower right hand corner of the doormat.

Lastly, I set up the main lighting. The simple setup included a light stand with a mounted Nikon SB-800 with a incandescent gel shot through a Zumbrella positioned high and at camera left. This gave a very wide, soft light, and have a very smooth transition from highlight to shadow. No additional fill was needed.

Immediately after I shot the photo for the paper (see top of post), I invited Mr. Chun's wife and daughter to join him.

A quick examination of the image showed the obvious glare on Mr. Chun's glasses. Also, there was a "hot" reflection of the Zumbrella in the background windows, a situation that could result in underexposed subjects. I was about to suggest some adjustments when I realized that dinner seating was beginning. If I wanted a wide shot that included the colonnade, I needed to start the change-over immediately. 

Since the set-up had already been done for the first shot, it was a simple matter to change to my second camera body with a fast, wide angle lens already installed. Since I had already set both cameras to the same ISO, shutter speed and aperture, I simply removed the SB-900 commander from one camera and placed it on the other. This wider shot gave a better sense of the location and used the ceiling lines and pillars to frame the shot and draw the viewers attention to the main subjects. The ceiling "bounce" light rebounded off the tiled floor and produced a nice highlight just behind the subjects. And I made sure that the exact center of the photo was covered by Mr. Chun's body. This way the reflection would not be visible in the final photograph.

While it would not have met the content requirements of the paper, it is a pleasing family photograph taken on a very special evening.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Out Of Focus Backgrounds

I was trying to make a photograph that took advantage of the vibrant reds and yellows in the trees surrounding the parking lot of the Marin Arts and Gardens Center in San Anselmo in Marin County. It was a quiet Saturday and the parking lot was almost empty. While I arranged all of the lighting and made the appropriate exposure settings, a friend made the actual photograph.

Establishing The Background Exposure: If there is one thing that digital brings to the table, it is the ability to evaluate your photograph instantly. This image was built from the background forward. I selected a group of colorful leaves as a background. I established the proper exposure by taking a reading in the Aperture Priority mode, and transferring the settings manually to the camera. I made several test shots, experimenting with modest degrees of under and over exposure until I got something I liked. Examining the post-exposure histogram on the back of the camera told me the hightlights were not over-exposed beyond recovery. However, I had no idea of how the background would actually appear in the final photo. I concentrated only on the exposure, and settled on settings of 1/125 of a second at F 10.0, ISO 200, with a Cloudy White Balance preset on a Nikon D70s.

Establishing The Mark: In order to prevent the existing sunlight from affecting the exposure on my face, I moved myself until my own shadow completely disapppeared in the shadows cast by the surrounding trees. Next, I put a rock exactly where I stood. This would be my mark.

Background Test Shot: To get a better idea of how the background would actually appear, I moved to where I planned to make the photo. Next, I focused on the rock. With the focus locked in place, I re-framed the image so the background filled the frame, and made an exposure. This showed me how the background would actually look when I eventually stood on my mark, in front of the background, and had my photo taken.

Lighting The Foreground: Now came the foreground (subject) exposure. Since the final product was to be a tight head shot, I moved a lightstand as close as I could without it intruding in the final image. In the end, it was so close that I could reach out and adjust it. I shot an Nikon SB-800 through an Zumbrella from high camera left. I made sure that the speedlight's sensor eye pointed directly toward the camera positon. I believe the final output setting was 1/4 power (manual output), possibly lower than that. The flash was triggered with an infra-red triggering device, a Nikon SU-800, part of Nikon's iTTL Creative Lighting System. A convention optical light trigger could have been used, but the flash coming from an on-camera position can be distracting to your subject. The infrared signal from the SU-800 is far less obtrusive.

Getting The Look: When my photographer friend was ready to make the photo, I had her position herself, up and down, left and right, until the background behind me had a nice balance of light and dark. This resulted in her taking a bent, half-crouching stance. The real trick was selecting a longest focal length on my zoom lens. In this case, the distance from the subject to the camera as about 15 feet. The focal length was set to 300mm. The foreshortening effect made the background appear larger in relation to the foreground subject.

And with a single press of the shutter release, everything fell into place.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Knowing A Good Thing - The Sony R1

Knowing a good thing when you see one is a cultivated talent. Having a small "needs list" and an enormous "wants list" keeps me constantly on the move, just like a shark who is always sniffing the waters. If you've followed my postings you'll know that I really like speedlights and enjoy using them to create images with as much saturation and detail as possible. And whenever I find something that will allow me to push the flash synchronization envelope, like the shark, I bite.

The Sony R1: I searched high and low for a nearly new copy of this camera after it was discontinued some years back. I finally found one on eBay in Canada at a reasonable price, so I bought it. The R1 is an object lesson in bad market timing. Its introduction in 2005 was welcomed news for many photographers. At $1000.00 it was touted as providing the convenience of a point-and-shoot with the image quality and pixel count comparable to a digital SLR. But in that same year, DSLR cameras from Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Olympus had already broken the $1000.00 barrier. One example, the Nikon D50 was priced at $700.00, complete with a modest zoom lens. And while these new DSLRs had fewer pixels than the R1, many questioned why they should put up with the R1's quirks when you could get a fast-handling DSLR body for the same price, or less? Granted, you had to buy a lens, but many photographers already had usable glass left over from their film cameras.

Quirks indeed. Like all non-SLRs of the time, the R1 is a bit slow to focus. The 5X Zeiss zoom lens, while reasonably sharp, was not removable. And finally, several important control features were missing. But it did have a reticulated LCD panel, a hot-shoe, and the most important feature, the ability to sync at all speeds up to 1/2000 of a second, the camera' s top speed.

The R1 In Action: I needed to produce a new cover photo for our Sping 2012 brochure. I decided to shoot it on the second floor outdoor stairway on the north side of our main office. This would give me a blue sky with fluffy clouds as the background. I got into position, placed marks where my subjects and I would eventually stand and took test shot. Based on my initial reading, I started with a shutter speed of 1/1250, an aperture of F 5.6, an ISO setting of 200, and a Daylight white balance. The first sample image, taken 'from the hip", is shown at the left. As the clouds began to clear and blue skies broke through, I cut the exposure by 1 stop by setting the aperture to F 8.0. I then positioned a Nikon SB-900 speedlight with an attached  Lumiquest Softbox III mounted  approximately 7 feet from where my subjects would stand. The flash was suspended from a boom so it could be centered over the group. I then used a left-hand hold to photograph myself standing on the "mark" and adjusted the speedlight's output to give an acceptable exposure. As it turned out, 1/2 power was the winner. Since the subjects would be standing at about the same distance from the speedlight, I was confident that the exposure would be identical. The speedlight test shot is shown at the right.

This particular location has one huge advantage. When shooting during the middle of the day, the sun would be coming from behind me, completely front-lighting the clouds. But the subjects would  actually be standing in the shadow of the building. Without the flash, the group would have looked something like this sample.

The final shot is shown below. I planned on using some sort of fill to bring details to the shadows, but my subjects were getting cold, so I stayed with the single key light without any fill. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the lighting provided by the Lumiquest Softbox. The shadows were softer than those created by an unmodified speedlight. The highlights were not small and specular like a bare flash but not so large as to desaturate skin tones. The final image has been "Photoshopped" slightly to improve its printability.

The R1 was chosen "for the job" because it has a 10.2 megapixel sensor, 70% more dots than my beloved D70s. Since the subjects weren't moving, focusing speed was not a factor. The reticulated viewfinder allowed me to shoot at a low angle without resorting to a right-angle finder, or worse, lying on the cold concrete. I tried to get the shot done before everybody congealed from the cold. And the longer I waited, the darker the photo sensitive sunglasses became.

I was pleased with the final result. Sure, there are some things that could have been improved, but the time constraints made additional do-overs out of the question. the R1's built-lens was up to the task, and additional pixels gave it the edge over a comparable Nikon. Had there been some fast action, the R1 would not have been the best machine for the job. But it was a lucky confluence of the photo's requirements and the camera's capabilities that worked together to build a very satisfactory image.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Non TTL Flash Automation

While TTL (through the lens) flash metering is the current norm, it wasn't always the case. Certainly within my memory, flash photography was part science, part alchemy, and a goodly portion of plain, old fashioned luck.

TTL flash works on the assumption that if a sensor could measure the amount of light hitting the film plane in real time, it could be turned off when there was enough to give a proper exposure. If you look closely at the bottom of the mirror box, you can sometimes see the actual sensor pointed directly at the CCD/CMOS sensor where the film used to be. Since the sensor in the camera must control the output of the flash, flashes and camera bodies must be designed to work together to determine proper exposure. The sensor must also make allowances for the camera's current ISO setting.

In a non-TTl flash, the sensor is mounted in the body of the flash, pointing directly at the subject. When triggered, a pulse of light is directed toward the subject. This pulse would continue until light sufficient for a proper exposure had been reflected back to the sensor, at which point any excess power would be dumped back for use during the next photo. This resulted in faster recycle times when the subject to flash distance was relatively short.

If you're looking for a relatively inexpensive non-TTL Nikon speedlight, my first choice would be the SB-24, since it is the oldest and therefore least expensive to acquire. I checked eBay and saw several in the $60.00-$80.00 range. But once upon a time, there were much less expensive and easier to find, as this posting by David Hobby so attests. But compared to the build quality that $100.00 gets you these days, the SB-24 still a good deal. The second on the hit parade is the SB-26, whose claim to fame is the built in slave. The SB-25, SB-28, and the SB-80 are also good choices, though more expensive. Avoid the SB-50.

External PC Connectors. The SB-24 and SB-26, along with nearly all high-end Nikon speedlights, have a supplementary PC connector built into the side of the flash body. You can connect a wireless radio triggering unit using a microphone to Nikon Locking PC cable on higher end triggers. Low end radio triggers will use the hot shoe.

Variable Angle Output: The Nikon SB-24 had a built-in zoom feature that handled lenses for 24mm to 85mm. The SB-26 had a sliding wide angle plate that would increase the coverage for a 20mm lens. All of these angle modifiers, whether built in or add on, leave much to be desired when it comes to concentrating the flash output for the purposes of accenting a small, specific region, which we'll in a later post.

The Control Panel: If you look on the front view of the flash, the Nikon sensor is very visible. It must always point directly at the subject, and whatever it sees will be the basis for how much light is delivered for that particular exposure.

If you look at the LCD on the back view of this SB-26 flash, you'll see that it  has been set to A (Aperture Automation), the  ISO Selection set to 200, and the Aperture set to 5.6. The effective range, as calculated by the flash, is from 2.5 to 20 feet.

What About The TTL Setting? Warning, warning, Will Robinson. The TTL on the early SB speedlights (SB-24, 25, 26, 28) setting does NOT work with any Nikon digital SLR, but surprisingly, works on the Fuji S2. Nikon went to the DX series of speedlights to be compatible with the D100 and D1/D1X/D1S camera bodies. So for all intents and purposes, ignore the TTL setting.

Changing The Settings: Now comes the setting. If you hold the SEL button, the current aperture sitting blink, indicating that you may now change the selected aperture. Now by pressing the up and down arrow buttons, you can select smaller or larger apertures in one-stop increments, respectively. Push the SELagain and you can change the ISO settings, up or down, in 1/3 stop increments. One final press on the SEL button locks the settings. The flash will hold its settngs so long as it is installed and removed from the camera's how shoe when the power is off.

And You Call That Magic?  Actually I do, and here's why. The flow of light is now controlled by the flash and is completely independent of the camera. So if you're using an appropriate Nikon (like the D70) and attached a suitable speedlight with a neutralized syncrhonization cord, you can now achieve a level of flash automation even when the shutter speed is set to 1/2000 of a second. In fact, even faster shutter speeds are possible if the duration of the flash is shorter than the shutter speed. I consider the 1/2000 setting as maximum as I have been able to utilize nearly all of the light produced by a speedlight in the A mode.

Future postings will show how a flash so configured and so connected can produce results that will amaze and astound.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Light Modifiers For Shoe Mounted Speedlights

In an earlier posting, I mentioned that I had used an on-camera flash to supplement some weak existing light. In these cases, the on-camera flash served as the main, or key light, meaning it was responsible for creating the shadows on the subject. I must emphasize that on-camera flash is usually not the best way to light a photo. But for those instances where it is the ONLY way to supplement the existing light sources, you should be aware of the shortcomings of mounting a flash so close to the lens axis. Certain light modifiers can help minimize these shortcomings. 

Gary Fong’s Lightspheres, often referred to as “tupperware”, are the first add-on modifiers that comes to mind. It was my first on-camera light modifier, and I do not hesitate to recommend it. They are as close to fool-proof as can get. I must admit that Mr. Fong is a great salesman, and the large number of photographers using the Domes is testament to their popularity. In use, the flash head is rotated to the vertical position, raising the mounted dome as high above the lens axis as is possible without a flash bracket. This additional height all but eliminates red eye at most shooting distances. And because the Lightsphere sits high atop the flash body, it won't interfere with the lightsensor should you use the flash in the non-TTL automatic mode.

Now the bad news. The dome scatters the flash output a full 360 degrees on the horizontal, which wastes a lot of light unless you’re in a small room with light colored walls that will bounce the light  back onto the subject. (I know of one photograher who lined the backside of his lightsphere with duct tape in an attempt to redirect the rearward bound light). You’ll need to shoot with relatively high ISOs, which won't degrade your images as much as it once did. The decreased light output makes moderate wide angle lenses with relative open apertures the platform of choice.

This photo of papa Scott and young Hunter Tingley was done at ISO 400, 1/80 of a second, F 5.6, using a Lightsphere. The lens was set to 24mm, which gave me enough distance to get some great catch lights. Notice that the shadows are softened somewhat by the large relative size of the Lightsphere. Easy peasy. Just point, compose, and shoot. If I had to make the shot again, I'd have upped the ISO to 800 and shot at 1/160 of a second, since there is the tiniest bit of blur.

Considering the aforementioned shortcomings, why not just mount your speedlight on a flash bracket which would raise the flash well above the lens axis? For one thing, the apparent size of the Lightsphere. When viewed from the subject's perspective, the Lightsphere has an effective area of more than three times that of the unadorned flash tube. This distributes the light over a much larger area resulting in highlights that are not so "hot" and smoother midtones. The catchlights are bigger, and the glare from shiny surfaces are not so specular.The saturation of colors is decreased somewhat, but the result is often more pleasing to the eye. Lastly, brackets add one more step to the set-up and take-down process.

Which Lightsphere should you select? There are currently two models, and in my opinion they are both are superior to the original versions which were fitted to specific flash head sizes. The Lightsphere Universal can be attached to almost any flash head up to the Nikon SB-900, which must have the largest head of any current production speedlight. It uses a Velcro cinch strap and a rubber “traction band” to hold it securely in place. The Lightsphere Collapsible  cannot be attached to a head as large as the SB-900 but attaches easily to just about everything else. It is held in place by a series of flanges that hold the flash head securely in place. Think Chinese finger trap. Incidentally, a filter set can be purchased that fits inside of the Collapsible version, but the colors don't seem to match any of the camera's built in white balance presets. If you use the filters, be prepared to take the time to make a custom white balance setting.

June 19, 2015 Update: Gary Fong has introduced a new collapsible Lightsphere top melded to a Lightsphere Universal bottom half. This allows compact storage and the ability to mount on the larger head of the SB-900/SB910. This is the way to go!

If you want to see Gary Fong in action, the following link will bring up a number of his You Tube instructional videos. Certainly, this man is not camera shy! Click here.
In short, the Gary Fong Lightspheres are a good place to start if you plan on photographing indoor events. It is foolproof to install and easy to use, but the light it produces, while not particularly creative, is consistent and reliable. For best results, you should set your camera at a high ISO with a shutter/aperture combination that will yield a one-stop underexposure of the ambient light. I prefer to set the shutter and aperture manually and allow the camera's TTL speedlight metering to take care of the rest. For the record, I usually program the flash to over-expose by 2/3 of a stop. Watch out for off-color ambient light sources. You may wish to filter your flash for a better match.

Yes Virginia, that is a genuine Fuji S2 with a Nikon SB-900 Speedlight sporting a Gary Fong Lightsphere Universal,  1/2 cloud opacity. The photo was made with a Nikon D90, 13 seconds, F8, at an ISO equivalent of 100. The SB-900 on the camera was set to SU-4 mode to act as a simple slave and set to 1/128 power. Some additional facial tissue was stuffed inside the Lightsphere to cut the output even further. A second SB-900 with a  Lumiquest LTP mini-softbox was fired,hand held, 5 times during the extended exposure (twice on the left and right edges, and once along the lens axis). It was quite a hustle using the open flash button while repositioning the hand-held flash for each burst of light.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Understanding Basic Composition

Composition is the placement of visual elements within the borders of the image. Good composition holds the viewer's attention within the photograph, encouraging the eyes to wander about inside the photograph, picking up details that add to the mood the photographer was attempting to set.

The photographs on this posting were made of, or by, W. Eugene Smith, (1918 - 1978) historically one of the most significant photographers of the twentieth century. He was a photographer for Life Magazine during World War II, and his images will forever remind us of the sacrifices made by thousands of Americans in the armed forces. Beyond their historical significance, I am using these images to illustrate some of the foundations of composition, and the qualities that contribute to a good photograph.

The Rule Of Thirds: This is the best known rule of composition. Start by drawing two imaginary vertical lines, spaced at the 1/3 and 2/3 mark, on the photograph. Do the same for the horizontals. Check the sample.

Important horizontals and verticals should be on either of their respective scribed lines. Important points of interest should appear where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. In this photo, his left eye and mouth happen to fall near the intersection of two horizontal lines and one vertical line.

The subject should face to the viewers left. Since western viewers automatically scan a page from left to right, they will be immediately confronted by the subject's gaze, which faces to the left.

The eye closest to the camera is the most important aspect of a portrait. As I mentioned earlier, Smith's left eye is closer to the camera than his right, and it also happens to fall on the intersection of a horizontal and vertical line. This eye must be in sharp focus.

There should be significant background interest. While classic portraiture might dictate a "content neutral" background, a journalistic portrait should provide the viewer with some insight into the subject. While the significance of the figure in the background is not apparent in this image, it was undoubtedly explained in the caption.

For the sake of comparison, I rotated the original Smith portrait so that it faces the the viewer's right and used Elements to extended the background which force him to the right hand side of the canvas space. This revised image has Smith's left eye on the 1/3 line, but his right eye, the one closer to the camera, is almost centered. It is still a compelling portrait, but I believe the viewer's eyes tends to "slip" off the edge, in part because the viewer tends to follow the subject's gaze. If you compare this image with the one at the top of the page, I  think you'll agree that the first is far more compelling.

Portrait and Landscape Compositions: Portrait orientation means the photo is taller than it is wide. Landscape orientation means the photo is wider than it is tall. Sometimes the subject dictates which is which, sometimes it is the will of the photographer.

This photograph was part of a Life Magazine photo essay entitled "Spanish Village". When the lines are drawn, you can see how the spindle becomes an important visual feature since it falls exactly on one of the compositional guidelines and also covers one of the intersections. The contrast of the white thread against the dark grey tones of the woman's dress adds to the intensity of the image.

The image also points out another rule that is not universal, but important to remember just the same: The least significant portion of the image is the central region. Certainly, the portrait of Smith at the top of the page is filled with detail at its center. But that was inevitable due to the level of intimacy one infers from the image. His left eye is in the right place, however.

Notice that there is a second woman in the shadows. She adds depth to the photograph, a visually interesting region for the eye to explore. It also adds depth to the image allowing the viewer to experience a three dimensional encounter in a typical European village.

This image from the "Country Doctor" essay shows how Smith uses the Rule of Thirds to arrange the composition. This symmetry of placement does not imply any motion, just the stillness of a doctor, tired from performing some emergency surgery.

The subject should face the center of the photograph. This is true for all three of these samples. In the case of the portrait at the top of this post, Smith's facing to the viewer's left implies a willingness to engage the viewer, which indeed it does to a left-to-right scan of  the image. This would obviously not be the case when the subject is looking directly at the camera, as it would be in a more formal "portrait".

In a portrait, the subject doesn't always make contact with the viewer. Depending on the mood you wish to set, you may need to decide whether to photograph your subjects looking at you, or not. As you can see in all of these photos, the subject is NOT looking at the camera, giving them a more "candid" appearance, a more natural portrait of the subject interacting with his or her environment.

This final image was also from the County Doctor series. In many respects,it seems like Smith ignored the Rule of Thirds. The main subject is near the exact center of the composition. However, when we look at the lines, we may see some insights into Smith's intent.

Re-examining the image shows that the picket fence on right is very close the the vertical 1/3 guideline. Also, the darker trees on the left come very close to the left vertical guideline. The the more important feature is the placement of the horizon and the cloud line. Both of these follow the two horizontal guidelines. And while his head is situated in the middle third of the top row, his head and hat contrast well against the darkened sky. Also, the doctor, while centered in the frame, is inclined slightly to the right, making it clear that he's in motion, but not running. He appears to be tired but determined, which is what I am sure Smith had in mind when he made the photo.

I am not advocating becoming a slave to the Rule of Thirds. Many memorable photographs break one, or all of these rules. But if you examine the photographs that have stood the test of time, you'll see that these rules are still a good place to start.

Addendum: In reviewing the blog, there is a bit of advice that I got from reading a column written by Bob Schwalberg when he wrote for Popular Photography, circa 1970. His paraphrased advice was simple: "A photographer is best judged not by the images he keeps, but by the images he throws away". While we take this as gospel in the digital age, there is a more important underlying message. When you set the bar high, you'll discard more, but the ones that make the cut will reflect a higher level of critical evaluation. Since we don't have access to the images that Smith "threw away", we have no idea how many images he took before selecting images for publication. And whether you worked with an enlarger or Photoshop, you can refine your final vision even further. Critical evaluation of your work will only make your photography better.

This last photo, A Walk To Paradise Garden, was made in 1946. A copy hangs in my office, a constant inspiration since I first saw it during a photography class in the early 1970's. In an interview, Smith said he wanted to make a photograph that would reaffirm our beliefs that good will prevail in a world so ravaged by the war. And that the world might once again be a place of wonder, where children would find the world green with promise in the years to come.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Congratulations, Renae and Brad

October 8, 2011: I photographed Renae and Brad's wedding this weekend. This was probably the most fun I've had behind the camera in a long, long, time. With so many wonderful people, photographing was truly a pleasure. I wish them both the very best, and am thankful that they included me in the celebration.

Shadows and Highlights: This kind of image is a photographer's nightmare. The sun's position was behind the guests The trees surrounding the venue rob the image of precious light. If you look at the wedding party standing by the arbor, you can see that for all intents and purposes, there isn't any light on their faces. The only option is to bring your own light into the photo. An on-camera SB-900 did the trick here. I was using a D7000 with a Tokina 11-17mm lens. The camera settings included a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, an aperture, of F/13, an ISO of 200, and the lens' focal length set to 14mm. I basically established focus and walked, backwards, as the left the arbor. I used a wide angle lens so I could get as close to the couple as possible. Your on-camera flash isn't that powerful when it comes to equalizing the light of the sun.  Don't forget to  watch for perspective distortion when working this close. I tried to keep the camera as level as possible for this very reason.

Dragging the Shutter: Dragging the shutter is a term used to describe the selection of a shutter speed slow enough to record the ambient light that illuminates the background.

The photo was shot with the aforementioned Nikon D7000/Tokina combination set to1/60 of a second, F/4.0, ISO 3200. The long exposure and high ISO allowed the twilight horizon to add an interesting background. The camera-mounted SB-800 was already dialed back to 1/128th power and it was still overexposing the subjects even with the diffusion dome on (this reduces the output by at least 1 stop). To cut the power further, I removed a strip of gaffer tape (I always keep some small pieces attached to the side of the flash for holding gels in place) and placed it over the diffuser to cut the light even further. This did the trick.

I love digital, because it allows you to determine the background exposure settings using the "shoot and chimp" method. The shutter/aperture combination gave results that look good to me. The flash, used manually in this photo, could be dialed up or down, depending on the distance. I tend to establish the correct flash exposure for a specific distance and make it a point to shoot from there.

On Camera Flash? Well yes, considering that I was alone and it would have been very difficult to accurately direct an off-camera light source while scrambling for a good shooting position. The down side of on-camera flash is the placement of the specular highlight on your subject (think shiny spot on the tip of the nose). The light placement is unfortunately close to the lens axis, so the light goes straight out, and the glare reflects straight back. If you think of the human face as a sphere, the glare spot will be centered on the orb's surface. If you can move the light source well away from the lens axis, the specular highlight moves closer to the edge of the face, producing less glare overall. Try to think of your flash bracket as a way to eliminate red-eye and not as a great alternative to off-camera flash.

Glare and Distance: The lower photo shows much better glare control because I was standing very close to my subjects. The distance between the SB-900's flash tube and the lens axis is about 8 inches. My twilight shot was taken at a distance of about 3 feet. If I am to achieve the same effect at twice the distance, the flash should now be 16 inches above the axis . In the shot at the top of this post, I would have had to raise my flash well above my head to get the same effect.

Remember, this only applies when the flash is the primary light source for the photo. It is the exact opposite when the flash is used to add detail, or "fill" the shadows. Then you want the flash as close to the lens axis as possible to prevent double shadows.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Man's Got To Do What A Man's Got To Do*

Monday, September 26, 2011. President Obama was scheduled to present a Town Hall type meeting a the Computer  History Museum in Mountain View. I arrived at 6:30am to find out that I was too late to get access to the shooting riser that had been set aside for still photographers covering the event. Not that I was late, mind you. I just mistakenly tried to enter the law enforcement entrance and spent 10 precious minutes trying to find the Media Entrance, which was locked when I found it. Now I'm in a pickle. Two more senior photographers from the San Mateo Daily Journal, Scott Lenhart and Andrew Scheiner, were far better prepared than I, as they arrived at 5:30 (the suggested opening) and dropped off their equipment and were now relaxing until we all could enter the hall and begin preparing our equipment at 9:00 am, sharp.

Somehow, either because I was lucky or pitiful, I managed to get a hand check of my equipment by a Secret Service agent. After the obligatory wanding, I headed into the hall and tried to stake out a spot. I wound up at the far right end of the riser next to the sound mixing station and behind two network video cameras. By 10:00am, nearly a full hour before the President's arrival, our shooting area was beginning to get crowded.

Good Idea #1: Always Carry A Speedlight: The Secret Service specifically said, "No Flash Photography", but since President Obama was an hour away, I felt that these "color commentary" shots would certainly be permissible. I wanted a shot of the melee that was forming in front of me, but all of the spotlights were pointed at the stage, which left us in the dark, literally. I needed a splash of light to illuminate the foreground.  I could have used the flash built into the top of your camera, but the light would have been uneven, fading rapidly as the distance increased. In addition, if used in the TTL mode, the flash and camera would have been easily fooled by the disparity of distances within the frame.

Instead, I mounted an SB-800 on the D7000 and pointed it straight up into the ceiling, which was probably 20 feet above us. Since my current camera settings  (shutter speed 1/125 and an 11-16mm Tokina set to F4) included an ISO of 1600, I was able to aim the flash straight up and bounce light off the ceiling. The light, now traveling a distance of over 40 feet, evenly lit the players in front of me, and completely disappeared towards center stage. And while the White Balance setting was at Auto, the deep blue drapes must have compensated for the warm tone of the spotlights, a happy accident and a believable rendering of the stage-lit audience. The flash  was set to manual at 1/8 power and gave plenty of light. If you examine the people at the far right edge of the photo, you can see the "daylight" from the flash start to fade, and the tungsten light start to pick up, as the distance from the lens increases.

The speedlight's power setting was determined through trial and error, and since the overall appearance of the photo was pleasing, I kept shooting until I saw something interesting in the foreground. Thank goodness for digital cameras and the preview mode!

If you carefully examine this image, you can see that my shooting position was not the best. There were two real problems. The first was the height of the video cameras. If you drew an imaginary line across the tops of the two cameras, you can see that my view of the President would be obstructed when he sat down. This meant that I would be forced to shoot between them, and would be their mercy if the operators panned their cameras from side to side. Also, the big Linkedin logo was at an angle from my vantage point. This would not look good as a background.

With all of the light directed toward center stage, everything in the immediate foreground was nearly black. Without my flash, this Point-And-Shooter was completely silhouetted against the background drapes. But the brightness of the LCD on the camera appeared to be equal to that of the background. I liked this shot because it was both a study in "blue" and it illustrated how one photographer overcame the shortcomings of his shooting position.

Good Idea #2: Live View Rocks (sometimes): I needed to get a photo with a little more context, one that said, if not shouted, "Linkedin". Seeing the oversized logo in the center, I positioned myself so I could photograph it dead-on without any perspective distortion. I finally got to a good position, but found that EVERYBODY had bunched up directly in front of me, obviously trying to get the same vantage point. While I could have just blindly held my camera aloft and did the "shoot and chimp" routine, I turned on Live View, and while holding the camera above me, adjusted its position until I could see that the logo was parallel with the top edge of the LCD screen. I shot several photos, keeping one eye on the alignment in the LCD and the other on the President. When he made a thoughtful gesture, I shot, being careful not to disturb the camera held precariously above my head at arm's length. 

I was well pleased with the final photo. You can clearly see that the heads of photographers and the bodies of the video cameras, but they helped to frame the image and refine the composition. Interestingly enough, this wasn't my first choice, as I felt the logo was a little over the top. But the Editor in Chief, seeing the photo, pushed it to the front page, above the crease, and gave it a full four columns of width.

Sometimes, you just get lucky.

*The quote is usually associated with actor John Wayne (1907-79) who allegedly used it, or a similar variant, in the western "Stagecoach". Or was it "Hondo"? Or "Shane"? WikiAnswers cites Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) as saying it in "The Rains of Ranchipur" in 1955.

Play it again, Sam.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pricing Photographic Services

I am sure that every serious amateur has considered going “pro” at some point. This has become more common with the advent of affordable digital cameras with modest price tags that are capable of producing professional quality results. I freely admit that I have often said that “Education is my wife, but photography is my mistress”. And truthfully, when I leave my “wife” (retire), my mistress and I will run off into the sunset together, spending countless hours in unbelievable bliss. However, turning “pro” implies that I will start charging for my work, a convenient way of offsetting the costs of new equipment. But before I start working on an appropriate price structure, I must examine how I want to price my services and match them with the market I wish to penetrate. I must also consider the level of compensation for the number of hours involved, and any other expenses incurred during the shoot.

For most people, the first time we encounter a photographer is in elementary school, and the last encounter is at a wedding (usually yours), and with almost no contact in between.  The unfortunate result is that most people believe that all photographs are priced in “photo packages” like 2 5X7 inch prints with a dozen wallets thrown in. And about twenty years later, when people start shopping for a wedding photographer, the package mindset frames the entire price to product discussion, since the bride and groom often base their decisions on how many photos will be in the album. In both cases, the first impulse may well be to take the total cost of the package and divide it by the number of pages in the album. I guarantee that if you take that approach, you will be amazed by how expensive each page becomes. While this approach to pricing may seem appropriate in our consumer-driven society, it does not accurately reflect the true cost and the intrinsic value of the end product.

Post Production: Let’s examine the pricing process and work backwards, starting with the album and ending with the services required to produce it. Chronologically, album production has many stages, the first of which is the editing. This is a process where all the stakeholders have some input on the final selection, the theme of the album, and the cover material. These decisions don’t just happen. The selection meeting may take an entire hour, and must rightfully be included in the total price. Next, there is the album design. This is the arrangement of the photos, selection of complementary backgrounds, and a sense for creating a pleasing graphic arrangement that is both visually appealing and presented in a logical sequence.  And even with the availability of some very specialized album creation programs, the process could take many, many hours. Once this is finished, another appointment is scheduled to get final approval of the album design. Once written approval is obtain, the actual production of the album can begin.  As a rough estimate, 2 hours of consultation, 8 hours of computer time, for at total of 10 hours of post production. This is a very conservative estimate, by the way. Since the actual cost of the album will vary, I’m leaving it out of the equation.

Remember that up to this point, we haven’t mentioned photography at all. All this happens after the wedding and is commonly referred to as “post production”. Successful management of post production is not about skills with a camera. It takes a well developed sense of aesthetics and superior computer skills to create an album look that reflects the mood of the wedding.

The Equipment: The actual photography during the wedding is highly visible, but also misunderstood. Before we get to the specifics, let’s start to look at what is required to properly document the event. First, let’s look at the equipment. A professional photographer must use equipment that is reliable, durable, and expensive. Even if the equipment is rented, the cost can be surprisingly high. For a wedding, I would bring the following: a Nikon D3, 3 zoom lenses (17-35 2.8, 20-70 2.8, and a 80-200 2.8), 2 Nikon SB-900 speedlights , 2 Spare camera batteries, Nikon D90Backup camera (w/ lens)  for a total of  $371 per day. For a two day event, you must double the cost. Incidentals such as single-use batteries and memory cards are not included. These prices were based on an on-line check of day-rates at Calumet.

The Wedding: Next comes photographic time on location. For a fully covered wedding, the day starts the moment make-up touches the bride’s face. In the wedding I will be photographing, this starts at 9:00 am in Burlingame. After both the hair and make-up are done, I’ll return with the bride to Half Moon Bay where the event is scheduled to start on 3:00 pm. I don’t believe I’ll be finished until 10:00 that evening. Dinner? Drinks? Afternoon Tea?  Forget it. I’ll be too busy photographing the bride. Any time away from the party will spent working with the bride and groom, trying to produce some show-stopping images with sunsets and seagulls, flowing veils, or romantic moments on the beach. Maybe I’ll get an hour or two when I’m off duty, you say. Off duty? That’s when you start to backup up your images. So far, I count 11 hours of my undivided attention dedicated to the lucky couple. This doesn't take into account the file uploads, backups, mass edits, and the final design of the album.

The Total: I’m sure I haven’t thought of every possible expense. However, an incomplete tally of the time and costs total $371 for equipment rental and 21 hours for photographing the event and the subsequent post production.

In short, both the photographer and the client need to understand that making a photograph involves far more than just the time behind the camera. As a photographer, keep track of your true costs including time and expenses. I am sure that you’ll find it to much higher that you thought. Knowing all of the facts can help both the client and the photographer better understand the true costs of photography.

Addendum: October 3, 2011: Since I originally posted this article, I've had some interesting discussions with several photographers whose situation is similar to my own. Any photographer who is contemplating turning pro must consider how his or her work stacks up against other photographers who are competing for the same market share. It's not enough to have a cool camera and an impressive lens. It's all about the images, the presentation, and on-time delivery. It's called customer service, and includes all aspects of the assignment, camera related or not. Just being there is not enough!