Sunday, April 29, 2012

Multiple Flash Indoors

You have to love wide angle lenses. The "stretch face" curse has become so commonplace that viewers look at these images without giving it a second thought. Unfortunately, the challenge of incorporating key visual elements within the confines of a photograph often forces me to choose the widest lens I have and live with the curse.

Flash indoors should have become obsolete with the advent of high ISOs on our digital cameras. But available light isn't always the most flattering. Indoors, light almost always comes from above, making for deep-set eye shadows and extremes brightness variations between the shadows and highlights. Sure, you could expose for the shadows and have completely blown highlights, or expose for the highlights and let all shadow detail disappear. But in the end, a photo that compromises one for the other will never reproduce well when it is finally printed.

Now there are many who might say that adding artificial lighting while making a photograph is "altering" the environment in an unethical manner. I agree that it does alter the look, but not necessary the content. I consider lighting as a tool to reveal, not conceal.

Supplementing exiting light gives me a chance to present to the viewer a scene that more closely resembles how the mind recorded it. The human eye, coupled with the human brain, is capable of compensating for the extreme variations between the highlights and the shadows. All the additional lighting does is make the image closer to what we remember, giving back the detail that was lost to the shadows. I consider this as "moral" as the flash bulb fired by a Speed Graphic, or the Vivitar 283 attached to a Nikon F. Now the bother of setting up additional lights? That's another story.

The event was "Fashion For  Compassion", and fundraiser for the Peninsula Humane Society. The animal fashion show was a bit if kitch, but always challenging and fun. As in all fund raisers, the tables closest to the stage are a bit more expensive, and to insure the highest returns on this prime real estate, packed closely together. This limits one's choice of shooting positions, so looked for a spot as close to the stage as possible to gain maximum control of the photo. When shooting up close at a low angle (don't block the view of the paying guests!), you get a lot of ceiling to contend with. The beautiful chandelier identifies this as the Airport Hilton, a detail that improves the local angle.

Now for the key light. I mounted an SB-800 on a light stand after I gelled it with a full CTO to match the incandescent lighting in the room. I placed the light stand right next to the mounted speakers to protect it from being bumped. I extended the stand as high as I could so the light would travel over the heads of the guests nearest the stage. This can be checked by simply standing or kneeling on the stage and looking for the light. If you can't see the light from the stage, you'll know that your subject won't be lit in that particular location.

Here's the view from the stage. You can see the flash in the background, next to the speaker box. At first, the balloons were actually casting shadows on the stage. Luckily for me, the balloons would be popped as part of a raffle.

The next test shot showed that my key light was casting a shadow on the ceiling. I added a Rogue Grid to the flash, and with the light now concentrated away from the ceiling, the shadow disappeared. That being done, I adjusted the exposure by photographing my hand while standing on the "mark", or point of focus. I programmed the key light to 1/4 power manual, based on this test. Finally, the fill light. I simply dialed the on-camera commander to a minus 2 stop output, gelled it with a full CTO, and I was ready. Here again is the selected shot.

This was my favorite from all of the runway shots. Making the photo was a bit difficult since the dogs really don't care about photographers and usually don't stand on their marks for very  long. Close inspection will show that I was a bit off focus, as the nearest dog is a wee bit soft. But sometimes a photo opportunity is a gift, one that you take as it is presented and simply say thank you, even if it's not what you really hoped for. 

The fill light is a bit strong on the near dog, something that is going to happen, no matter what. But the highlights are quite salvageable, and a few quick passes with the Burn Tool will fix this right up. The significant advantage to the off camera key light is in the shadows. Notice how they extend from camera left to right, just discernible on the runway carpet. The fill light does cast its own shadow, but you would have to really look for it. The chandelier on the ceiling maintains a textured appearance, and there is enough light to clearly see the audience. Yes, it's a flash photo, but the ambient light is certainly given its due.

Since it was a secure location, I frequently left the main presentation area and went looking for photos. I was now free to use ceiling and wall bounce by simply changing the output of the on-camera commander to plus 2/3 of a stop, my normal output for bounce flash. I do this because I prefer a slightly overexposed image when bouncing since it is "safe" light and doesn't block up the highlights as direct flash often does. 

I wanted to use bounced flash for the shot, so I positioned myself with my back toward a light colored wall, and asked these dog lovers turn so that they faced me. By using an ISO of 1600 and a relatively slow shutter speed, I was able to keep detail in the background. It was all a matter of waiting for Joey, a black chihuahua mix, to give a "look", which he eventually did.

Ceiling bounce was used in these two photos. The young woman on the left was speaking to somebody just outside of camera range. Just then Charlie looked up and I made this shot.

Poor Cupcake is feeling a little hot and tired. I found out the she was born deaf, and was trained to respond to hand signals. She had an incredibly sweet disposition, and the few minutes I spent with her reminded me how much I missed having a dog in my life.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Three On A Stick: Multiple Flash Main Lights

I had been postponing an article on multiple speedlights used as your main, or key light. I was waiting an opportunity to make a photo using the two Lastolite Tri-Flash brackets that I have personal experience with: The original Tri Flash and the Joe McNally unit.

The original Lastolite unit was the first one that I purchased. It holds three speed lights in a series of cold shoes that appear to be pre-formed into an aluminum extrusion. The most significant shortcoming is the lack of any secure mechanical retention. There is some clamping action provided by the foot of the speedlight, but not enough to inspire any level of confidence. I found that whenever I used them, I spent most of my time worrying about the speedlights' slipping out of their respective shoes.

The McNally unit had some major bells and whistles. I was taken by the fact that the cold shoes retained the speedlights using an actual clamp. However, both of the McNally units I purchased lacked sufficient clearance to properly clamp onto a flash. I wound up deepening the channel with a flat file. Once sufficient clearance was established, the unit worked fine. One nice feature is the rotating cold shoes. This allows you to rotate the flash body to get the best line of sight for reliable (hmmm...) iTTL synchronization.

Now this was all well and good, and I did use multiple speedlights in conjunction with some sort of umbrella light modifier. But after many, MANY dollars spent on these units, a third contender comes along that satisfies nearly all of my concerns at a fraction of the cost.

Adorama Triple Shoe Adapter. At about $20.00, I was skeptical, but bought two just the same. Well, you get what you pay for, but the functionality goes far beyond the price. It's an adapter that allows you to mount 3 speedlights onto a small base unit, but with a significant twist. First off, each shoe is a hot shoe, and all three units can be fired by using the built-in mini microphone jack.  Now if you have a radio controller that accepts a microphone jack (think Pocket Wizard), you can use fire all three flashes.  Secondly, the speedlights are retained by the retractable pin in the foot of the current Nikon speedlights, making it much easier to mount, and dismount, the speedlights. Granted, there doesn't seem to be any build quality in the unit, but if you already have a conventional umbrella bracket that uses accepts a 5/8" spigot to attach some sort of cold-shoe, this adapter is definitely worth the money. My advise would be to handle the unit with care and don't stress the mounted speedlights.

In the field, the Adorama unit worked exactly the way it should have. Using iTTL and 4 speedlights, the set-up was quick and easy. I used 3 lights, one for each shoe, in the Triple Shoe Adapter, all set to Group A, Channel 3. I used these settings so the remote units will work with my D70 camera's built in iTTL trigger which can only use the 3-A settings. It turns out that this setting works with my P7000 camera, but that's another story.

Planning The Shot: The lead photo was promoting a charity luncheon and fashion show that had a "safari" theme. As it turned out, their logo was a Giraffe. Now it just so happens that we have a bronze giraffe in Central Park, and my editor suggested that it might make a fun background. But what props could I add to carry the safari theme? I thought that if I went on safari, I'd be sure to bring a pair of binoculars and a camera with a long lens. So I rummaged up a pair of large binoculars and mounted on telephoto lens on non-functioning SLR body. I was good to go.

On the day before the shoot, I went to the park, and scouted for an angle that would allow me to bet a clean background around the giraffe's head. I made a mental note of where to stand to get the giraffe in the background, free from clutter and easily recognizable. I would have preferred a blue sky with some fluffy clouds but was forced to settle for a "leafy" background, courtesy of some background trees. There wasn't any way I could get enough light on the dark bronze surface to render any detail, so I was content to have just the silhouette.

Ready To Shoot: Luckily for me Ahnna, the publicist, came along with my two models, Tara and Liat. She volunteered to help hold the key light which allowed me to mount the key light on a hand-held paint pole instead of a light stand. I used three speedlights in the Triple Shoe Adapter and a Zumbrella in the shoot-through mode. Once everything was powered up and tested, I positioned my myself so I could the a clean outline of the giraffe. Next, I moved my models (forward and back, left and right) until they were properly positioned within the frame. This was a real time-saver because the relationship between the camera and the background was now a constant. Once I had Tara and Liat in place, I positioned Ahnna and the paint-pole key light about 6 feet away from the subjects with the umbrella held about 8 feet off the ground. Since I was almost 15 feet away, the light from pre-flash from the master unit actually bounced around the inner surface of the Zumbrella and eventually found its way into the sensors on each of the 3 SB-800s, which were set to add 2/3 of a stop of overexposure. I had dialed the output of the camera mounted controller to - 2 2/3 stops of output to just barely fill the shadows. Based on the previews, the fill appears to have been much greater than I had anticipated, but still nicely filled.

On thing to remember: Exposure is based on the distance between the key light and the subject. I could have been across the street and still achieved the same effect, providing the pre-flash could be seen and properly interpreted from that distance.

All in all, a pretty easy shot to make. It did require some careful planning, but the result was worth the trouble. and everybody was pleased with the finished product. I was done in 15 minutes, another plus.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Me: Lucrative Career. You: Motivated Single Photographer

I found this ad on Craigs List. I thought it read like a personal ad, hence the title.

You are a passionate photographer, and have excellent technical skills. You want to differentiate yourself not only as a talented photographer, but also as a business manager with essential operation skills to run a successful portrait photography business.

Join a sales-optimized portrait photography business and be part of our exciting, growing professional photographer team.

Your responsibilities:
  • Photograph, sell, produce and deliver children, wedding, professional, lifestyle portraits.
  • Attend weekly sales meetings (on Wed) to prospect new clients, build sales database and coordinate with sales team.
  • Process any orders resulting from your photo sessions and sales meetings.
  • Contribute to our Facebook, Twitter, and blog postings on regular basis to market your portfolio.
Your benefits:
  • Option to join a mentorship program dedicated to portrait and wedding photographers. You’ll learn advanced business skills that are critical to pursue your dream career. These skills include but are not limited to Marketing (advertising, product development, pricing), Sales and Business Development, Finance and Accounting, Photo Session Management, Productive Post-Processing Work-flow, and Order Fulfillment and Delivery Process(ing).
  • Competitive profit sharing from your photo sessions and product sales orders generated by our sales program.
  • Access to our sales office that will significantly enhance your presentation and double/triple your session sales.
Your qualifications:
  • Have access to professional camera bodies, two professional flashes; fast wide angle lens, medium focal length lens, and a longer lens (i.e. 70-200 f2.8).
  • College or master degree in photography a plus. Advanced computer skills in Photoshop, Lightroom, and other retouching software preferred.
  • Excellent communication skills; Affiliation with parents/children organization/network preferred.
  • Positive, great attitude. Motivated for success.
Please include in your application:
  • A link to your online photo portfolio.
  • A resume including education, experience related to photography.
  • Expected income and career goal.
  • Email, phone number.
  • Serious applicants only. We will call selected candidates with strong fit for interviews. Successful candidates will start immediately.
I came up with some hypothetical questions that a young photographer might ask prior to scheduling and interview.

What questions should I ask? I’m not sure if there is anything to ask, as the requirements are pretty straight forward.  The employer will be asking most of the questions.

It seems like I will be doing all the work and someone may teach me something, but he or she will get most of the profit. How much should I ask for in salary or hourly rate? You won’t get a salary. You'll get a cut of your bookings. It will probably be a sliding scale, something like 50% on bookings between $1,000 and $2,000, 60% on bookings between 3K and 4K, and 75% on anything over $4,000. I made this figures up, incidentally. If you're hoping for a salary, the nearest similar payment model would be a car salesman. Each month, a salesman gets a "draw" which is an advance on his future commissions on sales. When he sells a car, the dealership subtracts the previous draw from the commission and gives the salesman the rest. But if the salesman quits before he earned enough to clear the draws, he must pay it back.

This may have some advantages so long as this is not a pyramid scheme with an initial buy-in. But it sounds like I will have to drum up my own sales, right? Maybe not.  Pretend you're working for this studio. A potential client calls for an appointment. The Studio will then try to match the photographer’s style to what the customer wants.  An appointment will be scheduled so you can meet with the client. At that point you'll need to sell yourself, and an appropriate photo package. You'll need to have some samples of your work.

If that's the case, why work for this company? Because you may not get much exposure by yourself. Working for a studio puts your name on the letterhead and a link on their web page. If if somebody opens the page, there's your name. If somebody walks in off the street, you may have a chance to get an interview, and possibly a booking. You also have  a place to meet clients instead of having them look for you in a nearby Starbuck's.

I can get the education from books or seminars. Yes you can. But this particular adventure isn't about photography. It may not even be about marketing. It's about joining a turnkey operation with a set of rules and procedures to follow. It's assumed that you've already got the skills.

Last year I did contact a photographer who interviewed me for an assistant position, but I didn't get it. Now that guy is hiring again, and I applied again, but he won't take me because of lack of wedding experience. Isn't this a Catch 22? Yes, and no. If you have a portfolio full a great "event shots" showing that you can light and pose small and large groups of people, that might do. And if you add to that some good location portraits, so much the better. A good assistant should know how to set up lights on location according to instructions given by the primary photographer, swap lenses, cards, and batteries, and do on-location backup. He'll probably need to perform the pre-production file uploads, and probably do the initial editing the next day. He should probably know how to tie a bow tie, a full-Windsor knot, and a neat ribbon bow. In today’s market, the assistant needs to know the equipment inside and out, but may also be required to make photos to help fill out the primary photographer’s album. No recognition, the studio owns the  photos. And since these aren’t formals, they aren’t much of a showcase of what you could to if he was on his own. In many respects, photographing a wedding isn't significantly different from any other form of event photography. One's ability to work with people is what really counts. But you still need to show a variety of top-notch people photos that show that you've mastered the fundamentals.
In all fairness, this is a dialogue that will never happen. But it serves to keep my own head on straight whenever I think there's a career to be had on my side of the camera. This post hopefully acknowledges just how much a photographer must bring to the arena if they are to survive and thrive in the circus that is digital wedding photography. Also, it's better to have had this conversation before one jumps in with the lions, than after.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

If I Were You...

I have a friend who is interested in making photography a career. He graduated from a local state college with a degree in journalism, with an emphasis on photography. He has not been able to get much traction on his chosen career path, due in part to the decline of the printed media.

So where should he go from here? I am going to give some suggestions, but since I haven't had to "peddle my wares" in a public forum, I don't have any proven solutions. Instead, I have some ideas of how I would approach it the situation, were I in his shoes.

Step One: Identify The Photography You Do Best
Notice that I said "do", not "like". If you're looking for a career, you will need to distinguish yourself in some way. A client doesn't care if you enjoy your work so long as you produce the images he or she wants. Maybe you're good at macro photography, or maybe you're good with animals. If you're lucky, you'll be good at photographing people, since people tend to like photographs of themselves and those they care about, and are willing to pay money for a flattering likeness. For now, let's make it simple and not use the "W" word*. There are architectural photographers, fashion photographers, even some who specialize in photographing merchandise for on-line sales. Now collect your best images in one folder so you can refer to them from time to time. Let's call that your portfolio.

Step Two: Identify Your Immediate Competition
One of the things I like about old fashioned phone books is the categorical listings. Vendors who buy ad space in the Yellow Pages (or whatever they're called these days) need to decide where they want to place their ads. This isn't like the Internet where you search on key words and sort after the fact. If nothing else, you can see how other photographers describe themselves and their services. Look the ads over and note which words seem to spark your interest. If you like what you read, chances are good that your future client base will too. Check to see if they have a web site. If so, make them part of your collection of web favorites. 

Step Three: Compare Your Work
Here is the hard part. Find a photographer whose work you admire. Now be honest. No matter how talented your are, or think you are, there are dozens of images in the world you would be proud to say that you made, but didn't. Now select one of your competitor's images that fits that category. Let's call it your benchmark. Now check your portfolio of images to see if you one that is close in subject, composition, and technical competency. How does it stack up? Can you identify the qualities in your image that equal or surpass those of your benchmark? If your images are not "equal", you now have a starting point to find out why, and what techniques to begin refining. 

Here's a word of advise. If you're responding, "I could do that", you're missing an important point. These four words do not a sentence make because "could" is a conditional. The sentence should be "I could do that",  followed by a clause that starts, "...if I...". So what's keeping you from making a photograph the equals or surpasses your current benchmark? Need a more expensive camera? Need a different lens? Need more lights? You may believe this, but if you think that it's the equipment that made the photo, you seriously underestimate the photographer's contribution to the endeavor. Owning a Steinway piano will not make you the next Van Cliburn. It's all about technique, and now is the time to work on that. Read books, view blogs, do what it takes to change "I could" to "I did". I've listed some of my favorites in the side bar.

Ultimately, your response to a every one of your benchmark images should be, "I can do that" followed by a period.

Step Four: Lay Your Claim In Cyberspace
It's never too early to stake a claim in Cyberspace. In fact, one commentator suggested that every parent should buy the rights to an IP address in their child's name as soon as that name is selected. In the beginning, it could be as mundane as a place to post growing up photos and such, but one can never know what uses a young adult will have for personalized domain name twenty years from now. Sure, you can have a studio name, but if you sell your business the domain name goes with it. Just to be safe, your first and last name  plus the word "photography" or "photographer" will suffice, unless you have a name that is nearly impossible to spell, in which case you may wish to adopt a "nom de guerre" for the purpose.

Remember that this is just a reservation for the time being. It will be there, waiting for you, when you're ready.

The second claim I would "stake" is to an address on a free Blog service. Make sure it is the same as your domain name to avoid later confusion. Having a blog gives you a platform to display your work without going through the hassle of learning an HTML editor / web design program. If you can type, you can create a blog. My blog was designed primarily as a teaching tool for my photography students. But I always include images as samples of a specific photographic technique, which in turn can be used to show what I am capable of doing. I also include technical information, mainly as a reminder to the viewer that I'm not a point-and-shooter, but a serious photographer that has mastered both the aesthetic and the technical aspects of the craft.

Step Five: Join A Professional Organization
When you're just starting out, you need to get a sense of who's out there and what they're doing. If I were on this journey, I would join the Professional Photographers of California. They have monthly meetings in nearby South San Francisco, and non-members can attend for a nominal fee. Although I've not attended, I get e-mails on upcoming speakers. and they all appear to address some significant aspect of the photography business. Getting yourself known as a serious up-and-comer can provide you with established contacts in the field, and a chance to find out what it's really like. And having a chance to see the work of other photographers will certainly help you see exactly the market is really like. I'm sure there are similar meetings outside of the Bay Area.

These five steps are only a start. I made no mention pricing, monetizing your web page, marketing, and client satisfaction. If you get past these first five steps, the next person you talk to should probably be your accountant.

And last but not least; If you have a day job, keep it.

*Wedding Photography

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Long Distance Bounce Flash

As the resident "old guy" in this forum, I remember first attempting bounce flash in the early 70's. I used a Vivitar 180, a  shoe-mounted flash that could neither tilt nor rotate. It had two power settings: Full and Half power, plus a snap-one wide angle adapter. In order to use it in the bounce mode, I purchased a 3' extension flash cable and carried the flash in my pocket rather mounting it in cold shoe of my father's Pentax Spotmatic. When I was ready to make an exposure, I would locate a suitable bounce surface, estimate the distance from my flash to the bounce surface, estimate the distance from the bounce surface back to the subject, then add these two distances together. The correct aperture could then be read from scale on the top of the flash. This would give the proper exposure based on distance alone, which would probably work in a room with mirrored walls and ceilings. Unfortunately, this was never the case, so an exposure factor, usually 2 f-stops, was added to compensate for the varying degrees of bounce surface reflectivity. You could now set the "proper" aperture and hope for the best. Needless to say, high ISO/ASA films were the norm, as were large shooting apertures.

The lead photo was published on May 23, 1973 in East/West, a San Francisco bilingual newspaper. I used a 28mm F 2.5 Vivitar wide angle lens that allowed me to include as much of the foreground as I wished. I also bounced my flash, determining the exposure the old fashioned way. This technique revealed detail in Ms. Wong's face more effectively than mounting the flash on-camera. It also provided an even exposure from front to back.

Today's automatic flashes self-regulate their output based on exposure data processed from either a sensor eye mounted on the flash, or from exposure information gathered by the camera through its built-in meter. The latter method requires a dedicated speedlight, usually one made by the camera's manufacturer, that can communicate directly with the camera. This insures compatibility between the meter's interpretation of the situation, and the speedlight's ability to correctly apply this information to achieve proper exposure.

This particular assignment was to bring back an image from a talent show held at a local community center. It was a large room, and the closest bounce surface was the ceiling. Available light would require exposure times too long to be practical. I decided to see what I could do with bounce flash. There were going to be some exposure problems, as the camera-subject distance was unusually long, about 20'. This would be a relatively long shot even for on-camera direct flash. After some quick tests, I settled on 1/250 of a second, F 2.8, ISO 800. The lens was a 70-200 2.8 zoom, shot wide open. The on-camera flash was an SB-900, zoomed to the 200mm setting to tighten the light spread as much as possible. I also attached a square of gaffer-covered cardboard to the small patch on Velcro on the lower edge of the flash head. This gobo* would insure that the subject would receive only the light bounced from the ceiling. The speedlight was set to manual with full discharge, requiring  a relatively long recycle time. Notice how the light fades off in the background due to the greater distance it had to travel. Here Roger Mariucci sings Tom Jones' "Delilah", and carries it off very well.

I couldn't help but notice how incredibly even the light was, but shouldn't have been surprised. The light traveled a long way to reach the ceiling on an oblique path, which minimized the intensity difference between the light hitting Mr. Mariucci and that which hit the background. Also, the ceiling essentially became an enormous light box, creating an even frontal lighting that was very flattering, but a little short on character.

Mr. Mariucci was the last act, and true to form, his "fans", dollar bills and handkerchiefs in hand, charged the stage to the delight of the audience. From where I stood in the background, I couldn't get the shot. However, at the prompting of one of the guests, they re-staged the shot for his benefit. I made my way over to the site of the re-shoot while I pulled the SB-900 off my D300 and put it on my D7000 which was equipped with a 28-75 Tamron. I didn't any time to check the settings, so I just took the shot, and hoped that RAW processing would salvage the image. It turns out that the ISO was 1600, the exposure set to 1/80, the aperture to 2.8 and the white balance set to Incandescent. The flash was still set to Manual and Full Power. Needless to say, I was really pushing my luck.

Since another photographer had "set up" the shot, I needed to make a quick introduction, so I announced, "Can I get one too?". They obviously cooperated, and gave me a really cute photograph. Having the second camera ready to go was a real lifesaver, since the 70-200 would never have worked in such close quarters. Immediately afterward, I quickly introduced myself to Mr. Mariucci, and asked for help with the names.

The final shot was overexposed, but recoverable. The shadow patterns in the eyes shows that the on-flash was essentially pointed straight up. The gobo on the flash prevented any hot spots on the subjects. But the expressions say it all, and my editor was very pleased with the final product.

*gobo is camera speak for "GO Between Optics". It is some sort of shade placed between the light source and the camera lens. It prevents stray light from striking the lens on an oblique angle, the cause of most of the "ghosts" found on images that are lit from behind.