Monday, May 30, 2011

Umbrellas As Diffusers

It’s the morning after Carnival and while I still have a grin on my face, this is as close to Mardi Gras as I care to come. I normally make hundreds of photographs in the four hours I usually spend there.

Things were different this time. I was trying to refine some simple lighting techniques that could be used in the field with very little fuss. My basic rule is to bring no more equipment than one can carry without constantly bumping into fellow attendees. This was apparently not a universal rule among photographers, since the prize for “under-dressed and over-equipped photographer” went to a young man with a huge rolling equipment bag, a light stand tucked under his arm and a camera around his neck.

The ambient light was direct morning and mid-day sunshine that resulted in deep, harsh shadows. When I photographed these three young ladies, they were standing/squinting in direct sunlight, and I knew that the shadows would darken their eyes in a most unflattering way. Other photographers around me were shooting with the light just the way it was, and although I saw many cameras equipped with accessory flashes, I don’t remember any of them going off. Admittedly, synchronized flash under these conditions would have been problematic due to the lower synchronization speeds of all of the digital SLRs on the market. The subject-to-camera distance made High Speed Focal Plane Synchronization impractical.

The solution to the current Header Shot was relatively simple. I carried a David Ziser Zumbrella with me, mounted on a standard umbrella bracket atop a carbon fiber monopod. The Zumbrella has fabric that is more translucent than most shoot-through umbrellas, allowing more light to pass through it.

To get the shot, I opened the Zumbrella and angled it up slightly. With the foot of the monopod resting on my waist, I positioned the Zumbrella's shadow so it “covered” all three subjects. The light was reduced by approximately one f-stop, but the diffusion created by the Zumbrella beautifully softened the light, a very worthwhile tradeoff. Three shots later, it was all over.

Just to be clear: This shot is not going to win anybody a Pulitzer. It serves primarily as an example of using a light modifier in a different way. The resulting light is even and soft. And if you're wondering why I didn't try for a more interesting lighting angle, I was working within a very small footprint, hence the monopod resting on my hip rather than angled to the side. Also, directing the subjects with all the noise and distractions was out of the question. Things would have been different if I had an assistant.

Happy Birthday!
Getting people to pay attention and smile at the same time can be a challenge. I subscribe to Joe MacNally’s belief that when photographing a group, you have to be assertive if you want the subject to look engaged, so getting their attention is critically important. I often say “Smile like you really like me” with small groups. But in larger group settings I’ve taken to having my subjects say “Happy Birthday”, which is pretty universial and gets everybody’s attention. You may have to do it a few times to get the rhythm, but it has worked well for me, so far.

More to come.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Carnaval 2011

Carnaval: May 28-29, 2011
One of my favorite public photo events is Carnaval in San Francisco. I've attended Carnaval since 2008 and I can honestly say that if you want (or need) to practice photographing people, this is the place to do it. The music and dancing will make you want to samba in the streets, and the colorful costumes and floats beg to be photographed. The most important thing is that the participants expect to be photographed, making it so much easier for you.

If you're free to attend and would like to make some photographs, may I make some suggestions?

Get there early. I try to get there by 8:00 am so I can find a parking place as close as possible. I am not well versed in public transportation, but if you get off at the 24th street Bart Station, you'll be relatively close. I tend to drive my own car since I live in the city and it frees me up to do other things as soon as I'm done.

Wear comfortable shoes. You'll be on your feet a lot. Also, learn to "turn in a tight radius". When working in a crowd, keep your elbows in, and turn your head before you turn your body.

Keep moving, and keep watching. You need to develop of sense for spotting potential photographs before they actually occur. I tend to watch for interesting individuals that stand out in the crowd, children with a look of wonder, and costumes that are particularly colorful.

Watch the direction of the light. I try to avoid backlight (subject shadow pointing directly toward you) as the shadowed areas will usually be too underexposed to show much detail. If you expose for the shadows, the highlights will be too "hot" (overexposed) to yield any detail. To this end, I tend to walk with the sun over my shoulders, and wait for my subject to turn toward the light. You could argue that there might be a great photograph to be found when the sun is in your eyes and your subject's face is in the shadows. Maybe so, but I'll bet that you wind up deleting the image because the shadows aren't printable. Now if it’s a photo that I absolutely must have, I may supplement the shot with a speedlight. More on that later.

Simplify your camera settings. I generally set my cameras for aperture priority, ISO 400, cloudy white balance and a constant aperture of 5.6. I prefer this setting because the wider aperture yields a reduced depth of field that can help isolate the real center of interest. Also, a setting of 5.6 / ISO 400 is within the exposure range of most cameras. Using the time honored "sunny sixteen rule” to divine the proper, front lit exposure for this aperture/ISO combination in bright sunlight, you wind up with shutter speed of 1/3200, well within the range of most digital SLR cameras. With the lens still at 5.6, the proper open shade shutter speed would be 1/400, fast enough to stop almost any subject movement.