Sunday, January 29, 2012

Snoots and Grids

I spend a lot of time "playing" with new techniques, and just as much time refining old ones. It look upon these as tools that may, when applied judiciously at the right time, provide a photograph with more visual information to help the viewer more nearly "experience" the moment I attempted to capture.

Light Shaping: Light shaping has become something of an obsession with me. Whenever some new light shaping tool comes out, I respond in the same way as a carp approaching a doughball. One sniff, and cah-ching! It's mine.

Light modifiers fall into two categories: broad source and narrow source. Broad sources includes softboxes, umbrellas, and diffusion panels. They all allow the light to spread over a broader area resulting in a softer delineation between light and shadow. At the other end, there are light restrictors such as snoots and grids. Basically, a snoot can be a simple tube attached to the head of the speedlight. When it comes to light containment, a snoot only "suggests" where the photons will land.

Grids: Grids give you the ability to contain you light within a relatively small area. Their honeycomb construction constricts the light into tight cylinders with minimal spill on the edges. One such grid is the Rogue Grid from Expo Imaging. As you can see from the illustration on the manufacturer's web site, it consist of two grid disks that can be used together or separately. If you watch the video, you can see that the beam angle can be controlled to add light to a relatively small region. Unlike the snoot, it "directs" where the photon should go. For a detailed evaluation of the Rogue Grid, click here.

In The Field: I used a Rogue Grid for this shot at the Cantor Art Center on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California.  "The Thinker" had just returned from a two-year loan to the North Carolina Museum of Art, and I was sent to photograph the homecoming.

Making an available light shot was pretty easy, but for this image I used two speedlights: One camera mounted SB-800 was used as a Commander/Fill light, and a hand-held SB-900 with the Rogue Grid would be used as a hand-held accent light. I had both of the Rogue's inserts in place to produce the narrowest beam possible. To make the shot, my D300 was set to manual (1/50 @ F 5.6, ISO 800, Cloudy WB). The lens was an 11-16mm Tokina. I wanted to add a very small amount of fill from the on-camera flash and some additional specular highlights on the Thinker's face from the gridded speed light. Because of the relatively high ISO, the speedlight power settings were set manually to 1/64 (with dome) for the SB-800 and 1/8 power for the gridded SB-900.

Pointing my gridded "spotlight" was a trial-and-error affair. I was standing next to one of the grand pillars surrounding the rotunda, which I used to support my wrist while I made test shots to "walk" the light onto the statue's face. I found that my first shots were poorly directed, blasting light into places I didn't want it to go. This, coupled with the constantly moving ensemble of workers demanded a lot of attention if I was to make a good shot. The submitted photograph, shown below, was number 91 of the 92 shots made during the assignment, which included earlier shots made from different angles.

The grid actually did two things: It kept light on the Thinker's face, and off the face of the worker beside him. Granted, there was some spill on the latter, but not so much as to be distracting. The high/camera left position of the gridded speedlight threw the shadow behind the statue, invisible to the viewer.

The photo ran the next day on the front page. I was pleasantly surprised how nicely the gridded speedlight added detail to the Thinker's face, making the iconic statue easy to recognize.

The Cantor Art Museum is located on the Stanford campus. Admission is free. And if you're over fifty and remember the pink section of the San Francisco Chronicle, as I am and do, you'll forgive my saying,

"Joe Bob says check it out."

To learn more about Joe Bob Briggs, click here.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Field Expedient Sand Bag

Every now and then a sandbag can be very helpful. Let's say you're using a speed light on a portable portable light stand. You'll find the slightest breeze may cause the whole thing to topple over. What you need is some ballast to keep you light in place.

Obviously, carry a filled sandbag is not a viable option unless you have a strong and willing entourage following you about. I don't know about you, but I tend to find myself alone when I'm in the field, so I'm pretty much on  my own. But I've found an easy way to use my camera bag as ballast by carrying a simple accessory.

I normally carry a flashlight carrying ring snapped on the strap of my camera bag. I found it in a hardware store next to the Maglight flashlights. You may (or may not) know that for many years Maglites have been employed as batons by law enforcement personnel until the PR-24 became the standard issue for most departments. Now I'm been known to carry my monopod in exactly the same manner. But these carrying ring can also be used to turn your camera bag into a handy form of ballast.

Here's a close-up of the the ring hanging on one of the tension knobs of a typical light stand. For the purpose of the photo, the bag is hung much higher on the light stand that prudent, since any weight so high on the stand doesn't provide optimal ballast. The ring is not designed to hold much weight, but if you can allow the camera bag to rest partially on the ground, you'll be fine.

You may ask yourself why I don't just use the shoulder strap. Having the flashlight carrying ring gives me the flexibility to use a variety of attachment points that one might find on the bag such as the D rings or the carrying handle itself (as seen here).

Anyway, it's an inexpensive addition to you "kit" that just might come in handy. However, when I discussed this with a friend, reminded me that an inexpensive carabiner will do exactly the same thing.

For my Chinese readers, Gung Hay Fat Choy!

If you're wondering, those are droplets of rain that you see in the photos.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Octabox On The Cheap - The Photek Softlighter

The Photek Softlighter has been described by many as the "Poor Person's Octabox". It is essentially a regular reflective umbrella that employs a translucent diffuser that covers the umbrella like saran wrap covers a bowl. In the center of the diffuser there is a sleeve that allows the head of the speed light to pass through diffuser, allowing the light to bounce off the inner surface of the umbrella and pass back through the diffuser to produce a broad, soft light source.  It's not as easy to set up as a Lastolite EZbox, but then again it costs a lot less. I like the Softlighter for its fast and easy set-up, especially if the Black Plastic Thingie is used to hold your speedlight. And like all light modifiers of  this size, it gets blown around in the wind. (Photo:

By the way: If you haven't already done so, put a small Carabiner in your camera bag when you travel afield. You can use it to link a D-ring on your camera bag with one of the base supports on your light stand to make an impromptu sandbag for a little more stability in the wind.

Speed Light Position: When using an umbrella, it is always best to position the speed light as close to the umbrella shaft as possible. Unfortunately, most umbrella brackets use the speed light's hot shoe as the point of attachment, putting the light source high above the umbrella shaft. To compensate, umbrella bracket manufacturers drill the mounting hole at an angle so the line of site for the speed light intersects the shaft were it meets the umbrella. This works so long as there is vertical "space" for the speed light, as there would be in an umbrella.

The Photek Softlighter is an inexpensive lighting tool that really benefits from this on-axis speed light mounting. It is essentially a regular reflective umbrella that employs a translucent diffuser to cover the umbrella like saran wrap covers a bowl. In the center of the diffuser there is a sleeve that allows the head of the speed light to pass through diffuser so the light to bounce off the inner surface of the umbrella and pass back through the diffuser to produce a broad, soft light source.

Here is the Sunpak flash mounted on the Black Plastic Thingie and the Softlighter shaft partially inserted into the umbrella bracket. To install, you open the umbrella and thread the shaft through the diffuser's elastic sleeve. Next, secure the diffuser by passing the tips of the umbrella spines through the diffuser's grommets. To complete the installation, you position the umbrella so the flash head passes through the sleeve, then tighten in place. As you can see, the BPT brings the flash head much closer to the sleeve.

You can also see that the sleeve easily stretches around the speed light when mounted close to the axis. Also, the body of the speed light is now outside of the Softlighter, so it can be easily adjusted .

 Since proper mounting of the Photek requires a short flash to umbrella distance, the light is concentrated into a small bright spot centered on the shaft. You may want a Stofen Omni Bounce to help spread the light out to the edges of the Softlighter, giving a larger effective light source.

I was checking the web to see how other folks were handling the "flash in the hole" problem. One clever fellow added a piece of angle iron and a cold shoe to create a bracket to bring the flash much closer to the umbrella axis. While succeeds in getting the light ver close to the shaft, it puts too much weight too far from the umbrella bracket. The BPT keeps most of the weight closer to the light stand, something that seems to make more sense to me.

You can see that I installed a Calumet Wireless Trigger Kit receiver to the hot shoe. According to the description, "...This trigger set will allow you to trigger your flash over 100 meters away...". I think that's a little optimistic, but probably sufficient for the hobbyist wanting to experiment with wireless flash triggers.

For those with a Nikon DSLR or a Sony R1 with flash synchronization at any speed, this arrangements allows for easy camera connections using a modified SC-17 cable or a long PC-Male / PC-Male flash cable. Click here for some additional information.

I'll have some sample images in a future post.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Hoodman Hoodloupe

In my opinion, digital photography's greatest advantage is the ability to view the image immediately after the exposure is made. With a quick glance you can verify the accuracy of your exposure, and you can insure that everybody is in focus and you don't have any "blinkers". With film, you had to wait until after the film was developed and the proofs delivered. Waiting those few days was total agony, especially when you thought you managed to grab a really nice photo.

I've started making a habit of carrying, and using, a Hoodman Hoodloupe when photographing people. It is important to examine the images, especially when you've just rounded up your subjects for a group shot and know it would be nearly impossible to get them back together for an emergency re-shoot. Take the time to check your shots and dismiss the principles only after you're satisfied that everything is as good as you can make it. Also, the Hoodloupe allows you to examine the entire image under magnification rather than viewing just one small portion at a time.

If you purchase the Hoodman unit, you will find that the soft storage case will accommodate the Hoodloupe only when the eyepiece is fully retracted. But when properly focused, you'll find that it's now too long for the case. So to speed things up, I adjusted the eyepiece to properly view the LCD panel, and painted two index marks so I could quickly return the loupe to proper focus without actually looking through it. 

In The Field
I was photographing a special "Car Care For Women" presentation for the Journal. I had envisioned a shot where the participants were circled around the open hood of a car while the instructor gave his presentation. I initially thought that if I was close enough to the fender, I could get some engine details in the foreground. It didn't turn out as I had planned, and the best shot, taken from that position, is shown here.

I would have been perfectly happy with this shot, but upon closer examination, I found two shortcomings. First, there's the disembodied hand holding the flashlight in the background. And second, there isn't enough "engine" to help the story line along. I might have been content with the shot, but after close examination with the Loupe, I decided to keep shooting.

As luck would have it, the next demonstration car was already up on a lift. As the women gathered around, I positioned myself across from them and from a very low angle, and took my first shot. I immediately checked the exposure, and since I was satisfied, continued to shoot, looking for that moment when everybody looked engaged, properly exposed, and reasonably well distributed within the photo. The photo that I finally submitted is shown below.

This shot was chosen because the sponsor of the event is clearly visible in the back, and except for the floating arm behind the instructor, relatively free from distracting clutter.

While getting names for the caption and showing the final photo, the subject on the left remarked that the photo was not particularly flattering. But when I showed her the entire image, magnified with the Loupe, she agreed that it was a good photo of their host and the teacher, the two real stars of the image. The Loupe allowed her to critically view the entire image in sharp focus, something that can be difficult if she was forced to squint while trying to view the image on the LCD.

It was a fun assignment, and while there are things I wish I could have changed, my Editor was pleased with the effort. Incidentally, I cannot/do not alter the content of my images, meaning that cloning, the process where unwanted details are "painted" out, is strictly forbidden. And since this was a class in progress, I could only adjust my vantage point when attempting to conceal any distractions in the background.

Having and using the Loupe allowed me to make critical judgements before I leave the venue. This raises the bar when it comes to what I submit and what I will eventually delete.

Exposure Details: Nikon D300, Tokina 11-17mm 2.8 lens, 1/20 @ 3.5,  ISO 1600, Cloudy WB setting. An SB-800 with a Gary Fong Cloud Dome was used to light the foreground.

Specular Highlights: When these images were selected for the post, I noticed how much "nicer" the first sample was. The difference is due to two factors: the distance from the camera to the subjects and the height of the flash above the lens axis. In the first sample, the on-camera Gary Fong Cloud Dome was about 10" above the lens axis, and the taking distance was about 3 feet. There is good modeling on the instructor's face and a relatively small specular highlight (shiny spot) on his forehead. In the second shot, the distance was more than doubled, but the height of the shoe-mounted flash above the lens axis remained constant. This brought the light source closer (relatively) to the lens axis which resulted in a highlight more centered on the subject's faces. This resulted in an image that appeared washed out and more two dimensional. When working distances are this short, a SC-28 Remote TTL Cord can be effective in getting the flash further away from the axis.