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.