Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Background Story

Journalism, With Photos. Submitting photographs for publication has been a great learning opportunity for me. Probably the single most important thing I've learned (repeatedly!) is the each photograph must tell, or support, the story. A detailed caption is no substitute for a photo that includes important visual details from front to back.

Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Often called the 5 W's, the photo must answer as many of these questions as possible, thereby creating the interest that will encourage the viewer to actually read the article.

Summer Of Slither. The sample photo at the top of the page was taken at the Steinhart Aquarium at the opening of the Summer Of Slither exhibit. While the caption gave the Where and the When, I liked the photo because the background helped to establish the "Where". In this example, the background shows other exhibits, visitors, and a photographer focusing on a large lizard. The details in the background make it clear that the venue is a museum of some sort. To see the article,click here.

Photographing Against Glass. Glare is a problem when photographing subjects that are behind class. You can avoid some of it by positioning yourself as close the glass as possible. In this case, the camera itself will black a great deal of the offending glare, making it easier to get a clean shot. Touch the glass with your lens hood, if this is possible. Of course, this presumes that your final position gives you a pleasing composition in spite of the spacial restraints.

Overkill. Since I knew in advance I would be photographing reptiles behind glass, I carried in my camera bag a small, collapsible reflector (about 1 square foot) and a black tee-shirt. When the glare got started to get out of hand, I pulled the tee-shirt over the collapsible reflector which made a "shade" I could use to block the glare. I held the shade with my left hand and the camera with my right hand, and squeezed off the shot. A few moments later, I saw the photographer in the background, I re-composed the image to include him in the photo.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Photographing Moving Subjects

Incoming! I was on assignment at Filoli, an historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and one of the finest remaining country estates of the early 20th century. A number of family-friendly events are scheduled throughout the day. One popular event was a demonstration of by the  Fortis Agility Sports Training Group. Members train their dogs to run an obstacle course involving leaps, slaloms, and climbing.

I positioned myself to photograph dogs leaping over a high-jump bar that was adjusted to the dog's height. The day was overcast and my white balance was set according. The ISO was set high enough (ISO 800) in insure a short shutter speed to minimize the effects of subject motion. I made some sample shots in Aperture Priority and was satisfied with the results, the camera choosing an exposure setting of 1/2500 at F4.

Focusing was going to be a problem. While I was using a 2.8 fixed aperture lens, I was not confident that the autofocus could keep up with these fast-moving pooches, especially when they were essentially traveling straight towards me. I decided to adopt a trick that I read about in article about Alfred Eisenstadt, one of the best known Life Magazine photographers. Armed with a fully manual Leica rangefinder camera, the state of the art 35mm camera at time, he set about photographing the ice-skating barman delivering drinks at an alpine resort. Eisenstadt solved this by first focusing on a stationary object (which in this case was a chair) which established a plane of sharpest focus. Anything that was photographed beside the chair would also be  rendered in proper focus. Next, Eisenstadt had the barman skate past the chair and made his exposure when the he passed through that plane of sharpest focus.

I felt the conditions were nearly identical to the ones Eisenstadt faced so many years ago, so I decided to pre-focus on where the dog would be at the peak of his jump. But how do you focus on air? I solved this by focusing on a fixed point, namely the actual hurdle, and locked the focus in. Next, I leaned back about one-half the length of the jumping dog. I hoped this would place the tip of the dog's nose in the plane of maximum sharpness at the height of the jump, the moment when half of his body was in front of the hurdle and one half was behind.

Based on this early test shot, the technique seemed to work. The lean was about 8 inches, since the dog was small. The owner's legs were distracting, but the dog was where I wanted him.

My next shot was composed to emphasize the dog's leap. I tightened the crop to isolate the dog. Since the dog was larger, I leaned back a bit further, about eighteen inches. Here's the result.

After I finished congratulating myself on solving the problem, I realized that this photo really didn't have "legs" so far as the paper was concerned. It was a great photo of a dog, but even with a caption, it's a photo without a context. It needed some visual clues, something to link it to an interesting activity.

Using the same technique but a different dog I zoomed out for a different composition and shot until I made a photograph that included the owner giving the dog prompts on what he should do next.

This was the accepted image. While the young woman is recognizable, it's the dog that's the newsmaker, and he is clearly in focus. Fortunately for me, some of the other obstacles can be seen in the background and are easily recognized, adding to the context of the photo.

I will write more about context (the successful background) in another post.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ready For Your Close-Up, Mr. President

I was fortunate enough to be one of the photographers from the San Mateo Daily Journal to cover President Obama's visit to Face Book headquarters in Palo Alto.This was special because this was by invitation, and all photographers were required to register in advance before clearance was granted.

Press Access was at 11:30, so at 11:15 I was standing in line with the other photographers and reporters. We had our photo ID checked, got  "wanded" with a hand-held metal detector, had our equipment checked by sniffer dogs, and were finally ushered into a large warehouse, where we stayed until the event was over.  By 11:45 I was in position, ready to go.

The President would not speak until 2:00 pm so I just stood around, reserving my spot on the raised press platform positioned stage right. I was standing slightly above and behind the FaceBook video camera, so I figured this was a good spot since it was selected by the "home team". I had a clear view of the area where the President would be speaking, so I started taking and chimping photos of people as they walked by. Since I could not get a custom white balance from my vantage point on the side, I went with a Incandescent preset, which turned out just fine.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
People started to fill the makeshift auditorium and the bleacher seating at about 12:00 noon. You could feel the excitement in the air. By then, the local VIPs and Democratic Movers and Shakers made their way to their assigned seats. To my untrained eye, they looked important, but I couldn't place them. But many in the audience recognized them. and groups would get to their feet to have their pictures taken with this person or that. As I watched the scene unfold, I heard one photographer ask rhetorically, "Is that someone important?". My silent response? "Shoot first, ask questions later". I was able to recognize, and photograph, both Gavin Newsom and Nancy Pelosi as they posed for pictures and talked with reporters. This went on for nearly 30 minutes.

At 2:00 the President appeared, right on schedule. The crowd roared. Cell phones and cameras were all on the President as he greeted the audience seated behind him.

Location, Location, Location
According to my editor, context is the key. A successful photo must give the viewer some sense of the location since it is usually integral to the story. "A face and a place", as Joe McNally describes it. I made several shots during the speech, trying to capture something of the President's stage presence when addressing a live audience. I knew the President himself would be relatively small, since the Facebook Banner, the flags, and the audience were all essential in the story. In the final shot his hands are clearly delineated against his white shirt, and his eyes are obviously engaging Mark Zuckerberg, seated camera right. Click here to see the final shot, as accepted. It was shot with a 17-50 2.8 zoom at 50mm, cropped slightly.

Ready For The Close Up
This was my personal favorite of whole assignment.  I sent it first, quite pleased with the shot, but it failed to make the front page because there were no context clues except for the flags. It was subsequently printed on the Facebook page of the Daily Journal.

This was definitely an e-ticket ride. The orange and white White House Press Pool pass was my great trophy of the day.

*President Of The United States.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hello Old Friend

Olympian Adventure: The first camera I bought with my very own money was an Olympus 35 SP. I bring this up primarily because in 2011 I will have owned the little beast for 40 years, something a bit quaint in this age of planned obsolescence. As with all cameras of the time, it had more in common with a watch than a computer. For those who wish to know more about the camera, click here for more information.
The camera had some significant limitations when compared to today's digital wonders:
  • Hyperbole aside, the lens was not particularly sharp. As a consequence, I had to use every square millimeter of the negative, since excessive enlargement would reduce the sharpness even further. I also avoided making 8 X 10 prints. As my father used to say, "If you can't make it sharp, make it small".
  • The camera had a non-removable, fixed focal length lens. I am convinced that today's digital photographers wouldn't believe such cameras ever existed. This meant that if I wanted a close-up, I simply moved closer.
  • Roll Film Could Capture Fewer Images. With only 36 exposures, I was very careful when choosing my subjects. I knew that when I ran "dry", it could take a precious minute to reload and be ready to go, assuming that I could properly align the film with the sprockets  before I closed the back. I taped a film can with a second roll of film to the neckstrap, a simple gesture that showed the world that I meant business.
  • Advancing the film was a manual operation. Since I knew that it would be a second or two between shots, I tended to wait for that critical moment before pressing the shutter. 
For more than a year this camera was my constant companion. As was the custom of the time, I did most of my photography in the street, always trying to capture that fleeting slice of life that would serve as biting commentary on the social condition for years to come. Alas, that was not to be. But that year of photography taught me some lessons that we would all do well to learn.

Previsualize The Image. I learned to previsualize the finished photograph before I brought the camera into play, I looked directly at my intended subject. Next, I quickly glanced to see if anything in the background would distract from the main subject.

Make Your Adjustments Before Raising The Camera. I made it a point to select my aperture/shutter combination before bringing the camera to bear. I usually select the aperture first, since it will have the greatest impact on the appearance of the finished photograph. Today, I make it point to choose the smallest aperture (yielding the shallowest depth of field) I can get away with.

Bring The Camera To Your Face. Finally, and most importantly, I would bring the camera up to my face without losing sight of the subject. When doing this, I was quite sure that the image I would capture would be exactly what I had seen the moment before.  The built-in viewfinder window on the Olympus made it easy.

Compose and Crop In The Viewfinder. Be sure that all of the visual elements are in position before you release the shutter. While you can re-compose and crop in post production, you will find that the more drastic the crop, the more detail you will lose. 

I know it would be difficult for me to return to the mechanical, film-based, analog world of the 1970's. But overcoming the limitations of my equipment back then made me a better photographer today. I continue to remind myself that planning my shots is as important today as it was then, although the consequences of a miscalculation are less severe than they used to be.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Exposing Multiple Image Planes

Behind Every Successful Foreground There Is A Background*: I'm going off topic for this posting to emphasize a point made in my last entry. In it I suggested that proper exposure is based on two image planes: the background and the main subject. In this image there are actually three image planes, each one requiring its own exposure setting. Let's look at each of the three images, and see how proper exposure was determined. Incidentally, I won't go into exact settings, since yours will probably be different from mine.
  • The LCD Panel: This would be set first because I could not control the intensity of the screen. Before making the first test exposure, I needed to consider the following: White Balance, ISO setting, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. I went ahead and set my camera to Flash white balance, since the majority of the image would be lit with flash. Luckily for me, the balance was close enough. Next, I went right up to the LCD and made a photograph at ISO 400, and settled on a shutter and aperture combination of 1/20 second at F5. Why these settings? The ISO setting was the lowest setting I could get away with. I was using a wide angle lens set to 14mm, and  felt confident that I could hold still enough to make a reasonably sharp photo of a static subject at that speed. The aperture setting was based on some quick exposure tests, and F5 was the winner.
  • The Background Display: The tent made it easy to illuminate the panels. I attached 2 Nikon SB-800 speedlights in Justin Clamps  to the steel supports of the tent. The flashes were oriented so the heads would bounce the light off the ceiling of  the tent and the CLS (Nikon's Creative Lighting System) sensors faced the  camera. The light, forced to go the extra distance from the flash tube to the ceiling and back to the panels helped to even out  the top-to-bottom illumination. Since the light was coming from above and essentially perpendicular to the lens axis, the was little chance for glare, but a little bit snuck here and there, but not enough to matter, in my opinion. These two lights were set to Group C, Channel 3, so they could be controlled separately from any other flashes. With the camera set to F5, the CLS made the necessary adjustments. I could have dialed the intensity up or down, or gone full manual if it was necessary. Luckily for me, the CLS got it right the first time, although it's a little hot in the far corner of the tent.
  • The Main Subjects: The two young ladies were positioned beside the LCD, and a third SB-800, attached to a monopod, was held aloft. No light modifiers were used. Once the subjects were in position, I moved my assistant from left to right to be sure that light would slide past the flat screen of the LCD, thus avoiding glare. Special attention was paid to insuring that both faces were reasonably well lit. This single SB-800 was set to Group A, Channel 3. If you look at the concrete, you can guess where the light was placed by looking at the direction of the shadows. I'll talk more about that in a future post.
Final Gripes: I have to admit, I have many photographs that could benefit from a "Mulligan", and this is no exception. Although nobody ever noticed it, you can see one tent-mounted SB-800 in the metal framework of the tent. The position was both fortunate and unfortunate: good because it easily saw the control pre-flashes from my camera, but bad because it's visible. Next time, I'll mount the flash higher up in the tent above the camera's line of sight and put my master SB-800 on an SC-28 or SC-29 cable and position the unit just below. This way the light will sneak up under the edge of the tent to find the sensor.

Why Channel 3? I set my flashes to Channel 3 when they are in the remote (slave) mode. The Nikon CLS allows for a maximum of 3 groups (A,B, and C) and 4 channels (1,2,3, and 4). This is true when using the SB-800, SU-800,  or SB-900 in the Commander Mode. The on-board commander of current production cameras (when the commander mode is available) has only 2 groups and 4 channels. But the D70, oldest and least capable of the built-in commanders, has only 1 channel and 1 group, 3A. Any remote flash used with the D70 must be so configured, and since I use my D70's frequently, I set all my flashes to Channel 3. It just makes it easier.

*I believe I am quoting Bob Schwalberg, a writer for the magazine Popular Photography in a time when cameras had more in common with watches than microcomputers.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Left Hand Hold

Photo #1
I saw a video of  Dan Doke photographing a wedding with two cameras.He did not bother to shoulder either one. He simply held a wide-angle body in his left  hand and a telephoto equipped body in his right. When a close shot presented itself, he simple brought his left-hand camera to bear and took the shot. Ditto long shots with the long lens.Very fast, very efficient.

As near as I can tell, this is how Mr. Doke does it (Photo #1). I removed the lens to make the placement of the thumb more obvious. Rotate your wrist 180 degrees and you can now photograph the whole world with your left hand. Needless to say, without automatic exposure and focus this technique totally impractical unless you plan to make all of your shots at the same distance and under the same lighting conditions. This is what you'll look like from the subject's point of view (Photo #2).

Photo #2 Updated November 15, 2014
The ability to hold your camera in you left hand opens up many possibilities. It frees up your right hand to hold onto your monopod mounted speedlight. You can now change the direction of your supplementary light to either side, should the situation call for it. It works well for self portraits.

In defense of what credibility I may (or may not) have, the quick shot of my hand was made outside my office, completely without pretense. No effort was made to create "art".

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shoot Through Umbrellas

Sweet Ride
I loved this '52 Chevy. The color was described by owner Alex Padilla as "Toreador Metallic Red". I thought it looked like the color of a ripe bing cherry, and every bit as sweet and inviting.

There are several problems that were addressed in this photo. First, the morning sun combined with a Giants baseball cap cast a deep shadow over Alex's face. I had already decided that I would use a flash to bring back the detail. Secondly, there was the issue of overall exposure of the scene. I settled on 1/500 @ F8, ISO 200, Cloudy White Balance. The exposure managed to maintain the saturation of the car and kept the skin tones bright,  but acceptable. Also, the blue sky was not blown out, an important issue had clouds been part of the composition.

Now for the flash. Since the light would becoming from camera right (I didn't want a shadow of the outside mirror to affect the photo), I rotated the head of an SB-800 180 degrees so the sensor would face the camera. When the flash head faces forward, the sensor points towards the right, the appropriate orientation for a right handed photographer holding the flash in his/her left hand. Since this particular Nikon D70s has a non-functioning flash, I triggered the remote SB-800 with an SU-800 unit mounted in the hotshoe. I like to use the lighter SU-800 when I don't want or need an on-camera flash fill. The flash was mounted on the end of my monopod in an umbrella clamp with a Zumbrella firmly mounted in position.

My normal setting for the off-camera flash is + two-thirds of a stop, and that's were I left it. I took the shot with the monopod positioned across my chest so the light would be coming from camera right at a distance of about four feet. When I "chimped" the LCD, I saw that the the sun-lit skin tones were not blown out, and that the line between shadow and sun indicated that the flash had supplemented, but not overpowered, the existing sunlight. I was pleasantly surprised, and since the exposure looked good, I shot two more shots and called it good. One happy side effect of using an umbrella close-up is the large catchlights in Alex's eyes.

If I had more serious intentions for the photo, I would/should have set the flash to manual and adjusted the umbrella forward or backward until I achieved a satisfactory exposure on Alex. Without a light stand or an assistant, I just had to make do.

Personal Critique: Click here to see the published image. I'm well pleased with the photo considering how quickly it was made. However, I should have paid more attention to the background as seen through the windows of the car. If you look closely, you can easily spot the orange door of the Porta-Potty. Subsequent shots, taken from a different vantage point, minimized this unfortunate distraction. Unfortunately, the earlier version was selected. I hope the sticker "Sniff But Don't Scratch" catches the viewer's attention.

Nikon Creative Lighting System
If all this stuff is Klingon to you, check out the link to Nikon School Presents A Hands-on Guide to Creative Lighting available at At the listed price, it's a bargain. Bob Krist explains how the system components work separately and together, and Joe McNally shows the system in action while on assignment. A great video.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Direct Flash From Above

Attaching your electronic flash to the end of a monopod has many advantages. It gets your flash high off the camera to all but eliminate red-eye. The additional height casts a longer shadow, improving the three-dimensionality of your subjects. The shadow will be cast well behind the subject. Finally, it allows some flexibility to move your light from the left to right of camera, depending on the effect you wish to achieve.

For this shot, I simply held up the flash / monopod combination and took the photo. Nothing remarkable, but you will notice that the face has some additional 3-dimensionality that would be absent had I left the flash mounted to the hotshoe of the camera.

While the photo itself is somewhat unremarkable, it represents some basic approaches to exposure when using a flash for additional illumination. For the record, the camera settings on my Nikon D70 were as follows: Shutter Speed was 1/1000 second, Aperture was 5.6, ISO was 200, and White Balance was Cloudy.

Flash Synchronization at 1/1000th of a Second?
Yes, Virginia. The Nikon D70 / D70s has a maximum native synchronization speed of 1/500th of a second. But if the camera doesn't realize a flash is attached, it can sync at any speed.  The unusual feature is shared by the Nikon D40, the D50, and the D1/D1X/D1H bodies. All this without going the High Speed Focal Plane Synchronization. The only limiting factor is the actual duration of the flash itself. You connect the flash and the camera by getting a Nikon AS-15 Sync Terminal Adapter for your camera, and connect your Nikon flash with the appropriate cable, using a Nikon PC Male to PC Male or its equivalent. If you are using a flash other than a genuine Nikon unit, you're better off using a Wein Safe Sync. See below.

Determining the Base Ambient Exposure
If you examine the shadows of the spectators in the crowd, you will notice that they point to camera left with a slight inclination towards the shooter. This tells me that they are essentially backlit, with a slight rim of light to camera right. If I use the tried and true “sunny sixteen rule” for exposure for our ISO of 200, the correct settings for a normally exposed background would be 1/200 second and an aperture of 8, or to extrapolate, 1/400 at 5.6. By increasing the shutter speed to 1/1000, I have underexposed the crowd by 1 1/3 stop. I also managed to keep the yellow feathers from completely “blowing out”, or losing all detail in the highlights. You may wish to make a test shot or two and decide what works best for you.

Setting Your Flash-Automatic Setting
You must now match the flash output to the selected aperture. I was using a special Vivitar 283 that had been modified to take a Lumidyne reflector. See Disclaimer below. This in and of itself is not significant, but the manufacturer claimed that the small, parabolic reflector gave a more even, easier to control light source, a supposition I’m willing to take on faith. I then set the flash to provide a proper automatic exposure at 5.6, the pre-selected aperture, at ISO 200. For this unit, that was nearly a full flash discharge. There was also a ¼ CTO gel to warm the flesh tone a bit. No umbrella was used, since I needed all the power I could get.

The final image has a central subject clearly separate from the background by the relative brightness coupled with  the rim of light on the subject's left.

Wein Safe Sync
Now there are some tricks that are unique to the D70 family of cameras. The biggest advantage is full flash synchronization at all speeds if the camera doesn’t realize there’s a flash attached. In order to achieve this, I attached a Wein HSHSB Safe Sync adapter to the camera. The Safe Sync is attached to the flash using a locking PC-Household flash cable. With this setup, the 1/1000 second flash synchronized exposure was entirely possible.

Disclaimer: The Vivitar 283 has the earned reputation of burning out hot-shoe equipped cameras due to it extremely high triggering voltage. It is recommended that these flashes, and other flashes made in the last century, should NEVER be attached directly to the camera. I will not enter the debate concerning the safety of the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese iterations of the flash. If you decide to experiment with these older units on a modern camera, you do so at your own risk.