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.