Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Winter Wonderland

Kids and artificial snow. What a combination. These three photos ran front page, below the fold, in the December 15 edition of the Journal. You can view a pdf of this issue by clicking here.

From a photographer's point of view, it was another "whole cloth" image with me scurrying about, looking for something, ANYTHING, that would capture the the viewer's attention long enough for them to read about the upcoming toy drive by the Belmont Fire Department. It turns out that the mountain of artificial snow was a gold mine for cute photos.

One thing that surprised me was the bottom photo of Madison. In my mad dash to make the photo, I resorted to a lighting modifier I never use: the Diffusion Dome that was included with the SB-800. Granted, it is not a particularly effective light modifier, but I will concede it has its place. Similar domes are made by Stoffen for a wide variety of flashes.

To my knowledge, Nikon is the only company that routinely includes this accessory with its high-end flashes. When used, the beam angle should be set to the widest level of disbursement, and the head tilted up to the 60 degree position. This does two things: It allows light to bounce forward and above onto the ceiling, and increases the apparent size of the light source. This gives a slightly better wrap around the shadow edges, and when used indoors allows for some light to bounce off any nearby walls. Probably the most important improvement is the elevating of the light source above the axis of the lens. Not as much as a Gary Fong Cloud Dome, but certainly higher that a direct, straight-on flash position and way more that the camera's built-in.

I admit that all these modifications to the light are relatively minor, but when taken together, produce a nicer photo than I had a right to expect. One thing is for sure: no light landed on the subject without being redirected, in some way, by the dome.

A closer examination of the main photo may give hints to why using the Dome worked so well. The shot was made at very close range using an 11-16mm Tokina wide angle lens. The camera, a D7000, was set to 1/60, 5.6, ISO 1600. The slower shutter speed allowed some of the light from the spotlight (seen in the upper right hand corner) helped to highlight Madison's hair. Notice too, that her movement caused the hair to blur, a necessary trade-off if I was to get that splash of light from behind her. Her face remains sharp because it was illuminated only by the brief burst of light provided by the flash.

The shot of Madison was one of the last ones taken that evening. Other lighting techniques were used earlier, with varying degrees of success. 

This photo was made by bouncing an on-camera flash onto the wall of the firehouse behind me. The light is extremely even and the image full of detail. I was a little surprised that my single, on-camera flash could provide such even lighting. Note too, the bit of highlight on the edges of the Santa suit coming from the spotlight illuminating the area.

This photo, taken early in the evening, combined an on-camera Commander flash with an off-camera Remote mounted on a monopod held high overhead. A close examination of Laurel's face shows the tell-tale nose shadow created by the key-light/fill light combination. Unfortunately, shadows from a multiple light arrangement come back, screaming, when you examine the young boy in the background. His outstretched arm has two distinct shadows: one from my elevated Key light, and the other from the spotlight behind me. When dragging the shutter (increasing the exposure time to allow the ambient light to contribute to the overall illumination), shadows created by the ambient light can be seen right along side those created by the flash key light.

I wanted to include this photo because it shows that the ambient can affect the overall appearance of the photo in some very subtle ways. This shot was made with the dome equipped on-camera flash, but the spotlight was behind me, not in front as it was in the first image. The snow looks a little flat, probably because both the ambient and the flash are providing front light. The subject to camera distance was considerably longer than the first shot, so the light is much closer to the axis of the lens. The photo looks a bit flat with no "twinkle" to the snow.

Kids and a mountain of artificial snow. Life doesn't get much better for them, or for me.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Making A Photo From Whole Cloth

In some respects, editorial photography is identical to advertising photography, which is product photography with a message. The photo must obviously be properly exposed and suitable cropped, but from that point forward it becomes an exercise in understanding the communicative power of an image.

The San Mateo Daily Journal is not a "gotcha" periodical. It is a community paper, and as such, celebrates the community's accomplishments. If people get together to promote civic pride, the Journal will do its best to recognize it. When an assignment comes from my Editor, it's because there was, or will be, an event worthy of the community's recognition.

Whole Cloth: I use the term "whole cloth" as a way to describe the open-ended nature of some assignments. When I arrived at the location, I only know the name of one of the co-chairs, the start time, and whatever information I could glean from the press release. The content of the final photo was entirely up to me.

One of the greatest challenges is limiting the "pose time" required for the shot. This is actual time it takes to make the photo and does not include any preparation done beforehand. I try to do as much preparation as possible by phone or e-mail by contacting the publicist listed on the initial press. My editors will often provide a list of the shot's  "must includes", which can be actual names, or in some cases, titles.

This shot was at a "Monte Carlo Night" fundraiser held at a country club on the Peninsula. The shot was simplicity itself. The event started at 5:30, so I arrived at 5:15. After locating one of the co-chairs, I told her that I would spend 10 minutes scouting for a suitable location while she found the other co-chair and the auctioneer.

Shooting Position: I try to choose shooting positions that have interesting foregrounds and backgrounds in order to provide a sense of scale and depth. In this case, nearly every shot in the room would include portions of the surrounding woods, so to prevent them from being grossly overexposed, I used the shortest flash synchronized shutter speed, the lowest practical ISO, and the smallest aperture possible. The latter would necessitate more than a single flash if I was to have any flexibility in positioning my supplementary light source. So for this shot, I did my preliminary shots on the craps table using 2 SB-800s on a monopod shot through a Zumbrella. Doubling the number of flashes would bring my key light closer to the brightness of the windows.

Dealing With Ambient Background Light: One other thing when dealing with the great outdoors: Avoid having the bright, overexposed sky at the very edge of the photo. This shot includes enough "borders" to keep the eye from wandering off of the photograph. You can see how the ceiling fixtures and the window panes serve the purpose, although I wish I could have used the ceiling to complete contain the overexposed sky in the distant background.

It tried to position my flash to be the same distance to the leftmost and rightmost subjects. To accomplish this, the monopod was extended to full length and held high up at the camera's right. If you examine the location of the shadows, you can get a good idea of the approximate location of the light. Another advantage of this angled light source is the saturation of the different colored poker chips due to the absence of glare. 

Directing The Shot: When the three ladies returned, I convinced one of the dealers to start explaining how the game was played, and after a few minutes of instruction the the three spontaneously started throwing chips to place their practice bets. If you look closely, you can actually see a red chip caught in mid flight. The photo shoot was done in five minutes. Everybody was now free to return to the party. 

In looking over the finished product, there are a number elements to tie the image to the event. While you might have recognized the venue (The University Club in Palo Alto), It is obvious from the gambling table with three stylishly dressed women that it was probably a charity event. However, I felt it important to include significant detail in the crap table, since the colored chips and the writing on the felt would add to the visual interest. I do think, from time to time, that the dealer occupies too much space in the photo, but he told me that this is exactly where he would normally stand. The angle of shot allows for more depth, so the photo has both left to right, and front to back.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Telephoto Lens In Low Light

Republican Convention, Miami Beach, August 3-8 1068. Photo by David Douglas Duncan from "Self Portrait USA".

David Douglas Duncan (born January 23, 1916) is another great photographer from the bygone years of black and white film. He was one of the first photojournalists to champion Japanese cameras and lenses right after World War II. In fact, Nikon may well owe its popularity to his early adoption of Nikkor lenses. His photo books include Yankee Nomad, War Without Heroes, and Self Portrait USA, all three of which I own.

The lead photo has a story that illustrates the constant battle between image quality and film speed. When this photo was taken, Kodak's Tri-X, the industry standard for photojournalists, was rated at ASA 400, but photographers using developers such as Acufine were "pushing" to ASA levels to 1200, and beyond. The story goes that Duncan, along with the rest of the press corps, was stationed in the press "pit", trying to photograph under difficult lighting conditions. At the time, fast lenses were not that common, probably because the technology of the time limited the size and types of lenses that could be manufactured. However, Duncan was armed with a 400mm Leitz 5.6 telephoto, which he had mounted it on a tripod. Because he had a tripod, he could use exposure times of 1/30 to 1/60 of a second if he shot the big lens wide open at 5.6, exposures within the range of an un-pushed ASA of 400.

With things pretty much bolted in place, how did he go about making these insightful images? According to Duncan, he waited for his subject paused while thinking about how to answer a questions, or sat intently, listening to the proceedings around him. Bet on it, people sit very still when contemplating what to say, or what to think. By waiting for this critical moment, Duncan captured some of the most revealing images from the Republican Convention.

How Long An Exposure? There is an old rule that the longest shutter speed you can successfully hand hold (without support) is the reciprichol of the focal length of the lens. For example, a 400mm lens should never be hand-held a speeds longer than 1/400th of a second.  This was derived from a film world, but for those using APS sized DSLR cameras, you would do well to up this value by the lens magnification factor of 1.5 which would give you a "hard deck" value of 1/600th of a second, or there abouts.

Fast forward to 2012. Nikon has just introduced a new lens. It's a 70-200 zoom lens with Vibration  Reduction (some people call it Image Stabilization). First the good news: It's lighter and smaller than the 70-200 2.8 (left). Now the bad news: It has a maximum aperture of F 4.0. Show at the right, it is small and more compact, and about $1,000.00 cheaper. What's not to like? Who needs the additional F-Stop?

I asked myself this questions some years back. I was getting ready to photograph the indoor graduation ceremonies for the Adult School and was debating what features I should look for in a long lens. I knew that my existing lenses were fast enough to capture the event, but not long enough to produce any interesting close-ups. The choice came down to two different possible solutions: a zoom lens with Vibration Reduction, or a prime lens with a large open aperture. At this point in time, the 70-200 2.8 was completely out of the question.

One of the first things I did was examine the maximum aperture at the maximum focal length. In an earlier posting, I demonstrated that with most zooms, the maximum aperture decreases as the focal length increases. One of the lenses in the running was the 24-120 Nikkor which had a maximum aperture of 5.6 at the longest focal length.

This close-up of the lens name plate came from Ken Rockwell's excellent evaluation on this lens. Read the article, in its entirety, by clicking here. The specifications read as follows:
  • Minimum Focal Length: 24mm
  • Maximum Focal Length: 120mm
  • Largest Aperture at the Minimum Focal Length: F 3.5
  • Largest Aperture at the Maximum Focal Length: F 5.6.
At first I thought I could live with a 120 mm 5.6 lens, since I thought the stability provided by the Vibration Reduction would allow me at least 2 stops of additional "speed", meaning that I could effectively shoot 1/30 of a second, based on the aforementioned relationship between focal length and slowest shutter speed. (Calculation check: Maximum useful exposure time for a 120 lens is 1/120 of of a second, so two "stops" of additional exposure would yield the 1/30 value mentioned earlier). One might conclude that VR is like having a built in tripod, making sharp images possible with long lenses and relatively long exposure times.

An important comment on the value of VR comes from David Ziser, the inventor of the Zumbrella and the Mick Jagger of Wedding Photographers. Okay, bad joke. He is an experienced wedding photographer whose working style I admire greatly. His take on VR lenses (He's a Canon guy, and they call it Image Stabilization, or IS) is simple: IS helps you produce acceptably sharp images more often. In essence, VR/IS is not a slam dunk when it comes to creating sharp images.

Check this image, a reject from an earlier assignment. The lens was stabilized, and the image reasonably sharp. But the subject's near hand? Blurred from a simple hand gesture. 1/125 @ F 3.5, ISO 800. Focal length was 110mm, so I'm very close to the longest non-stabilized exposure time. In this case, it was subject movement, not camera shake, that made this image unusable.

Duncan was wise to wait for his subject to pause before making his photos. Even with all of today's technical advantages, the photographer's timing becomes the critical element, since Vibration Reduction, high native ISO values, and affordable, quality fast lenses make Duncan's use of the tripod less of a mandate for making quality "podium" photos. But after all is said and done, the skill set the photographer brings to the game outweighs any advantages modern equipment might provide.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Lens Is The Thing

A while back I was asked by a former student about some pending equipment purchases. More specifically, he was trying to decide between buying a new body (In this case a Nikon D7000 or D90) to use with his older, non AF-S lenses, or buying a brand new lens (Nikon F2.8  17-55 AF-S) to use with is current body, a D80. His goal was to photograph indoor sports, so for me, the logical choice was the fast lens.

Fast forward to the present. As with so many things, the D80 body is getting up in years, and my former student is now looking to purchase a new body. Instead of returning to the D7000/D90 debate, he proposd gettting a D3200. He reasoned that since I had recommended the purchase of the aforementioned lens over the new body. a D3200 should be adequate for his needs.  After all, one might infer that my earlier recommendation was based on the assumption that the lens itself was the more important contributor to a quality photograph.

I can't help but feel my comments were taken out of context, since I was actually asked to choose between upgrading a body or buying another lens. I felt that given the lenses he already had, there would be no appreciable improvement in performance if a newer, more efficient camera body were used. However, the 17-55 was an AF-S lens, which meant an automatic boost in focusing speed, and a constant aperture 2.8, which meant he could potentially shoot at F 2.8 at all focal lengths, a definite plus for improved low-light performance.

Now the Nikon D3200 is the newest entry level camera from Nikon. It does have one stand-out feature: a 24 Megapixel Sensor. That's a lot of dots, perhaps too many, according to Ken Rockwell, the blogger who wrote the evaluation. I am not as "dot crazy" as many photograpers are, but my luke warm embrace of the D3200 as my student's next camera is not based on it apparent over-abundance of pixels, but rather the camera itself. Here are some reasons why I would not recommment the D3200 as a replacement for his venerable D80.

Adjustments Through Menus:
The number of features in the little D3200 is amazing. However, many of the ones I commonly use are menu driven, meaning that a signifigant amount of time could potentially be wasted trying to navigate through menus and sub-menus whenever an internal change had to be made. On the other hand, the D7000's ISO settings, White Balance Presets, and Metering Modes have their own external buttons. Focusing mode changes (Focus Mode, Auto Focus Area Mode) are also controlled from the outside. In addition, the D3200's lack of a Secondary Command Dial makes manual aperture adjustments awkward at best. And because the D3200 body requires the use of AF-S lenses, his older AF (only) lenses would only focus manually.

Small Size: I find the D40 Clan (the base body size from which all of Nikon's entry level cameras are derived) is too small. I find that when I'm in the Single AF Area Mode, I often accidentally change the active focusing brackets. This could have been solved had Nikon included a Lock Lever like the one found on the D7000. To be fair, I mounted the 17-55 on my comparibly sized D40 body and found the combination poorly balanced. Sure, it worked, but the "feel" just wasn't there.

Build Quality: I suspect, but can't prove, that most D7000 bodies will outlive most D3200 bodies. We may never know, since must buyers of entry level cameras don't rack up the exposures at the same rate as production shooters. But all in all, it would be a rare photographer who would bet his or her reputation, professional or otherwise, on the survivability of a D3200 in an environment requiring a heavy shooting schedule.

Many of the conclusions on the D3200 came from Ken Rockwell's Blog on the camera. I often recommend his blog as providing good, solid recomendations on equipment and techniques for most photographers. But as your photographic horizons grow, you'll be placing more demands on the adaptability of your equipment. The skill set you'll obtain through Ken's blog will satisfy most tastes and needs. But when the time comes when your skills go beyond merely shooting in Aperture Priority, you'll need a camera that has the features that will keep up with your skillset. You'll find a lot more growing room if you go with a full featured camera.  

Addendum: December 12, 2012: An important feature is lacking in the entry-level Nikon DSLR cameras: The Commander Mode feature for the built in-flash. This allows the user to control a comptible Nikon speedlight wirelessly from the camera. A valuable feature if you own a Nikon SB600, SB700, SB800, SB900 or SB910 speedlight.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bouncing Behind Ya'

Had an interesting evening photographing Olympic Champion Greg Louganis when he spoke at a fund-raiser in October of 2012. I employed a high ceiling bounce, complete with Black Foamie Thing, to eliminate head-on glare. I know that in these situations I've said that flash should be avoided, but there were two important factors that influenced my decision to use it. First, there was no supplementary lighting on the podium, and more importantly, I wasn't the first one to use flash. The organization's own "hired gun" had a powerful Quantum flash mounted on a light stand strategically positioned in provide lighting for the speakers. Since my light would be bouncing off the ceiling, it would be far less distracting so far as the speakers were concerned. It's not every day you get to be the good cop.

As you might recall from my earlier posts, you need to take a lot of shots to get one that will work. Here, the important things to watch out for are the placement of the hands and the "view-ability" of the face. With the microphone off to the side, we can get a clear view of his face. I might have preferred to have the hand a little closer to his face, but this was the best of the group.

One other important consideration is whether a speaker gestures with his left or right hand. I've found it easier to get an acceptable image if you photograph from the speaker's weak side. This way the arm never crosses in front of the body, making it easier to make a photo that appears to be more open.

Getting It Together: Setting up this shot did require some prompting on my part. Right after the speech, I immediately went to Mr. Louganis, introduced myself, and spoke of my good fortune in being assigned to hotograph an Olympic Medalist. Then I added, "I'm sure Paula (the event's honoree) would be thrilled to have a photo taken with you. Would you help me with this?". Presented that way, how could he refuse? Excusing myself briefly, I found Paula and told her I had arranged for her to be photographed beside Greg Louganis, which pleased her to no end. As I brought her to where Mr. Louganis was standing, I managed to to convince Michelle, the event coordinator, to join us.

Bouncing From Behind: For this small group shot, I positioned my subjects about ten feet in front of a convenient wall. I did not make a custom white balance for the shot because the beige color would not have a negative impact on the overall coloration of the shot. One nice thing about using the BFT is that it acts like a barn door to force the light to bounce from a relatively high position. This can be helpful when photographing people wearing glasses because it reduces the on-axis bounce-back. While the light is soft, it is directional due to the relatively high position.

Shadow Fill. I noticed that the "chin shadow" for Mr. Louganis is quite dark, while Paula's shadow (center) has some illumination, and Michelle's shadow, looks very well filled. I wondered about this until I realized that the fill light was provided by the clothing and skin of the two ladies, but Mr. Louganis, clothed in black up to his neck, had no fill whatsoever. This is totally beyond my control, but at least I now know why it's happening.

Something To Remember: One final note. While I did submit this shot to the paper, I didn't think to thank, then dismss, Michelle so I could get of shot just of Paula and Greg. Had I thought of this, I would have had a bit more freedom in composing the shot. Fortunately for me, I could produce a suitable 8X10 by simply cropping.

While this is still an acceptable shot, it would have been much better if I could have stepped back a little reduce the "in your face" aspect of this closeup. But this was a lesson learned, and I'll add it to my list of things to remember the next time I'm called upon to make a similar photo. I suspect my pennance will be twenty minutes of age appropriate re-touching, which could have been avoided if I had thought to isolate my two subjects and shoot from a greater distance.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Shutter Actuations and Camera Life Expectancy

 Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in  Casablanca.  Warner Brothers 1942

"Well, I guess that's the way it goes... one out and one in."

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) said it best. Ugarte has been arrested. Ilsa just walked in to the club.

One of my beloved Nikon D70s bodies just went kaput. I had nicknamed it "High Miles" because this EBay special, while pristine on the outside, had nearly 20,000 shutter actuations when I got it. It served me well, but succumbed to the twin maladies of a failed card interface and an auto focusing problem, both of which were revealed during a routine sensor cleaning. The card interface is/was a well documented problem with the earlier D70, and was supposedly fixed in the D70s. I can state that the camera's demise had nothing to do with the number of shutter actuations, the real subject of this post.

Single lens reflex cameras are complicated pieces of machinery with lots of moving parts. And like most modern things, repairs usually entail the replacement of an entire module rather than a detailed inspection and targeted repair. Typically, a shutter mechanism replacement will run around $300.00 and in some cases is more than the camera is worth. Then too, you replace the shutter and then the mirror box goes out. The aforementioned card interface replacement costs about $250.00, which I had done on another D70s body. I'm just guessing on the cost of addressing the auto focus problem, but a potential repair bill of $500.00 doesn't make sense for a camera that I only paid $250.00 for, if that.

A new, older D70 body has come into my life. Nicknamed the "Centipede", the body was purchased for the princely sum of $100.00. The firmware had been properly updated. But was my new purchase lemon or lemonade? The body cleaned up nicely, and I resisted the urge to immediately clean the sensor. Instead, I ran an Opanda check.

Opanda is a free download that allows you to view the EXIF data that accompanies your digital image. Along with exposure information, the number of shutter actuations can also be found. Some earlier DSLR cameras don't carry all of this information. The data will look like this:

For my new Nikon D70 Body, the selected image was actuation #9,822.

A serious used camera shopper might consider downloading Opanda to his or her laptop and carry it when shopping. When a likely purchase shows up, one could make a quick reference photo and save it to the SD or CF card you just happen to be carrying. Open the Opanda application and read the card using the computer's built-in SD slot or an accessory card reader. A too high shutter count could be the deal breaker. Incidentally, this won't work on older DSLRs and Point and Shoots of any vintage.

Camera Shutter Life Expectancy Database
This web site allows you to evaluate how far along your camera is, so far as expected shutter life. As I said earlier, this gives real world data from camera users who submit the shutter count when a wide variety of cameras "die".

Checking the site's data on the D70s (the closest match I could find), I found this data:

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. Mark Twain had that right. For the most part, I use this data as an indicator of when my camera is getting ready to bite the dust. Based on these figures, my little D70 has a ways to go. But as it gets further along in years, I'll be less likely to carry the camera for any serious photographic outings.

Why The Names? I started naming my D70 bodies because some of them had faults that could affect their reliability if I carried them on an assignment. Two of the bodies have non-functioning pop-up flashes, which is handy to know if I ever needed to use the built-in as a Commander. Two have a strange sensor problem that occasionally yield images with smears or odd color interptetations. These shortcomings a listed , along with their nicknames, on a stick-on label that I attach to the LCD protector. If I really need a reliable body, I'll choose either "Prestine" or "Best One Yet", knowing that they have been checked and have had no functional issues to this point.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Image Versus Identity

I dropped by the Japanese Culture Festival in Millbrae on Sunday with the intent of making a single photograph for possible publication in the Journal. As is my habit, I thought about what sort of photograph I might make if I were assigned to the event. No such assignment came, officially, so I decided to "free lance" and see if I could find something.

During the presentation, this group of young Karate students was showing their combat skills from an elevated stage. Luckily for me, the stage was covered with a translucent screen that softened the light and filled the shadows. If you look carefully, you can see that the shadow edges are still quite sharp, but there is plenty of detail in the shadows. The photo would reproduce well.

After the presentation, I went back stage and asked for the "See Foo", a term of respect for the Grand Master. When I introduced myself, I asked for his help in identifying these three young men. He could give me the full names of only one of the three, but could give me the name of the young woman, shown below.

The question was this: Should I submit the stronger photo of the unnamed boys, or the lesser one with a named subject?

I went with this one, since I was able to get her full name. I could have easily captioned the first photo "...These three students of World Oyama Karate...", but opted not to. I checked with my editor, and asked how she would have handled it. Her response was to submit the shot with the named subjects. Her reasoning was that in a local paper, the recognition of someone from the community would be more appealing than a shot that couldn't make a local connection. This would not be an issue if the photo ran in Minnesota, where there was no local connection to be made.

Breaking Boards: You can't be everywhere at once. Here is a photo of a student preparing to break a board. Too bad that the angle was so bad. Without his face, there really wasn't really complete. Without her face, the photo was missing too much to make it a contender. The shot might have gone, but I would not have been as effective as it could have been if his face was showing.

Sometimes the images you get are controlled by where you happen to stand. While the position I chose provided lots of very attractive light for my subjects, I was in the wrong place to photograph the Ice Block breaking that occurred minutes later at the other side of the stage. But I did bring back a fun photo from where I stood.

Like I said, you just can't be everywhere at once.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Staying In The Manual Mode

Speaking engagements featuring media personalities are often easier to photograph than those featuring a local resident who has gained some recent notoriety. This is because people used to being "in the spotlight" know that this is more than a metaphor. Proper lighting is important and adds polish to their presentations. These photos were taken at the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame which features a very professional lighting set-up that is an integral part of this venue. In fact, there was actually a mini-media center in the back of the room to coordinate the recording and simultaneous projection of the presentation onto two screens placed on the left and the right of the speaker.

When I arrived on the "set", one of the first things I did was to find a good spot from which to shoot. I let the publicist know that I'd like to move as close as possible, but assured him or her that I would be careful not to obstruct the view of the event's guests. As I moved closer, I made it a point to check the location of the video camera so that I wouldn't be in the "line of fire".

White Balance: In a professionally designed lighting setup like this, it's pretty safe to leave your white balance at Incandescent. By using one of the white balance presets, your camera is now "immune" to changes in background color, something that can cause a color shift when your white balance is set to "Auto".

Guessing The Exposure: When shooting in environments where the background is is so light absorbent, any meter reading would have been a bad guess. I chose to make my first exposure guess at 1/100, 2.8,  ISO 3200, the lowest practical shutter speed / aperture / ISO combination I could use when the camera was hand held. Luckily for me, the preview in the LCD display showed significant over exposure.

I like to creep up on the final exposure settings using the Highlights option in the camera's display mode, which displays any overexposed areas as blinking in black and white. When I saw "blinkies" occur over some important areas in the photo, I knew that all detail would be lost unless I decreased the exposure, which I did. I dropped the exposure a full stop (1/250 at 2.8) and after re-checking the preview, was pretty much "good to go".

Composition: In this first shot, I chose a position where the sponsor logo was clearly displayed. I thought this would be a good context clue, but after taking several shots, decided that I should try to include the projection screen in the background instead. So I changed my position as soon as the next speaker took the podium.

The nice thing about shooting in the manual mode is that as long as the main lights remain constant, the background can be under or over-exposed and you will still have a consistently exposed subject. When they turned out the house lights to lend drama to the background PowerPoint presentation, the subject was still properly exposed, save the shadow areas that were no receiving any fill light.

Shooting under these circumstances required some contortions on my part, since a steady shooting position is not always consistent with a low profile. In this case, I was about three tables away from the podium, kneeling behind two seated guests, shooting between the bobbing heads on the other side of the table. You can see one head that entered the frame just as I took the shot. I still like it because with the house lights off, the PowerPoint slide didn't suffer from random reflections from the projection screen, giving the image a higher level of saturation.

The photo I selected for publication can be seen at the top of the page, which incidentally ran the very next day. Several factors dictated my choice: Both hands visible and easily seen, and a gesture that suggests a forceful lecturer. One final feature was the sharpness of the eyes. With minimal depth of field, the eyes did occasionally fall out of the plane of focus, but luckily for me, not in this case. The VR (Vibration Reduction) feature of the lens helped too.

I'm glad the lighting was as good as it was. It made the assignment relatively easy. And by locking the shutter speed and the aperture setting, it made it more so.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Power of the Caption

I was asked to give some general advise to some high school students who were interested in event photography for a local newspaper. Besides the expectation of exposure and composition, submissions to the paper must be accompanied with a caption that includes the normal What, Where, When and Who, but also an explanation of why the photograph is linked to the event. Photos of this type are often of people receiving awards, performing charitable work, or enjoying some local event. 
This sample photo was not submitted because I could not get the participant's name before the submission deadline. However, for this sample a title of "three students" will suffice.

The City of Millbrae’s Japanese Culture Festival Committee and The Millbrae Chamber of Commerce sponsored the 7th Annual Japanese Culture Festival on Sunday.  

The first sentence establishes the What (Japanese Culture Festival), the Where (Millbrae), the When (Sunday, two days prior to date of publication).

Here three students show their martial arts skills during a demonstration by the World Oyama Karate, a martial arts school focusing  on strengthening the mind, body, and spirit through hard, intense training.

The second sentence provides the Who (three students) and the link to the event (demonstration by World Oyama Karate). The information about the school came directly from the World Oyama Website. I will often add information about any charitable organization that I copy from their website mission statement.

Gloria Thompson-Edge, left, receives a new poncho from Lily Laurent Ryan at the Westside Church of Christ in San Mateo on December 7 (2011). The church dining room serves hot meals weekday evenings from 5-6 pm with the support of the Samaritan House. The ponchos were donated and distributed by members of the Belmont Rotary Club. 

This caption follows the same formula, but in this case I chose to identify the two women in the first sentence, followed immediately by the where and the when. The Why can be inferred by second sentence, while the third gives some additional information about the donors.

Getting Names: Obviously this shot couldn't run without the names. When approaching people, I remember one piece of advice my Father gave me many years ago: Don't photograph anyone who doesn't want to be photographed. But these are not "hard news" assignments where personal privacy is trumped by "information for the better good". Instead, I was in the basement of a church serving hot meals to the community. There could be a number of reasons why Gloria would not want her photo published.

To get this shot, I came right out an introduced myself as a photographer for the Journal, and that she had a really great smile, and that I would like to make a photography of her, standing with Lily, so I could show what great work the Belmont Rotary Club was doing. She was very accommodating and the two of them fell into the pose you see. I tried my best to be sure that nobody else was in the photo, but the best I could do was partially obscure the lone diner in the background.

The Barnes and Noble at Hillsdale hosted a birthday party for Sesame Street’s Elmo on February 3 (2012). The party featured a special book reading, games, crafts, and cake. Here, 2 year old Lina Bozic holds up her new finger puppet.  Elmo first appeared on Sesame Street in 1983.

Perhaps to show that order isn't everything, I wrote this caption for an Elmo Birthday Party. As soon as I saw this young lady, I knew that this was the photograph.

Because of the age of the child, I needed to be absolutely sure that I had permission to publish the photo. I introduced myself to the young woman who accompanied her, who turned out to be her baby sitter. In order to get permission, I had the sitter call the mother, explain the situation, and told her that I would e-mail her a copy of the image for her approval if she would call me, which she eventually did. When she saw the photo, she gave her approval to publish. This was probably the longest quest I ever made to get permission, but felt it was the right thing to do.

It is the caption that pulls the photo together, giving the photo an intellectual context that will shape our response to the photo.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Lo Error Message

The Lo error message shows up occasionally. It isn’t an error message, so much as a warning, of an exposure anomaly. It never occurs in the manual mode, since the camera assumes that you know what you’re doing. You’ll see it occasionally in Aperture Priority, but mostly in Shutter Priority. Let’s explore this.

Let’s determine the proper exposure using the Sunny Sixteen Rule. Let’s start with an ISO setting of 125, just to make things simple. Under the requisite sunny conditions, the rule dictates the base exposure, shaded in yellow. I’ve added 8 additional shutter/aperture combinations that will provide an identical exposure.

F 2
F 2.8
F 4
F 5.6
F 8
F 11
F 16
F 22
F 32

Assuming that the light remains constant, I could set the shutter speed to 1/125 and the camera would select F 16 as the proper aperture. If I set the shutter speed to 1/250, the camera would select F11. If you selected a shutter speed of 1/2000, the camera would select F 4. You can see the combination shaded in red.

F 2
F 2.8
F 4
F 5.6
F 8
F 11
F 16
F 22
F 32

But what if the lens doesn’t have an aperture of F 4? This would be a common occurrence if you’re using a variable aperture kit lens at the longer settings where the widest aperture is 5.6 or slower. In this case, the camera would give you the “Lo” error message, indicating that the combination is beyond the lenses ability to compensate. In fact, you’d get the warning with any shutter speed for which there was not appropriate aperture. You can see the possible shutter settings that would give you the message.

F 5.6
F 8
F 11
F 16
F 22
F 32

The Lo message will appear from time to time. It's just a reminder that sometimes the camera DOES know best!

By the way, you'll also get it if you leave the lens cap on.