Thursday, May 31, 2012

Where Are You Going?

Where are you going my little one, little one,
Where are you going my baby, my own?
Turn around and you're two, Turn around and you're four,
Turn around and you're a young girl going out of the door.

My niece is getting married. The little "Squirmy Worm" is marrying the love of her life, and a great sea change ebbs before me. I wish that her Grandparents had lived to see this moment. But I am consoled that Suzi wears the wedding ring my Mother wore every day until my Father passed away. Now, the ring lives again, sparkling with the promise of a love as strong and enduring as my Parent's.

My primary role was that of my sister's brother, Uncle Tom as I prefer not to be called (just Tom will do). It was to be a small wedding, with fewer than 30 guests in attendance. I brought my camera, hoping that I might be able to make some images that would have made my parents proud.

I can't say enough about using bounce flash indoors with the help of the Black Foamie Thing. Using it is simplicity itself, so long as you remember the following:
  • Use the narrowest beam angle on your flash,
  • Be sure the BFT blocks any direct light from the flash tube, and
  • Keep your ISO as high as practical.
Now there are some things that this technique can't do. One big problem is wrestling with intrusive sunlight. There just isn't enough power to equal the direct rays of the sun. Sometimes you can work around it, and other times you can't. However, if you must work with high ambient light sources, see if you can find a way to reduce the apparent brightness. Sometimes you can work the shots from a different vantage point, or in this case, do your planned shots later in the day, or on the shady side of the building. The sun had set behind the mountains, and the ambient light outside became much easier to work with.

The wedding itself was held at the Ahwahnee Chapel in Yosemite, and the reception at the Ahwahnee Lodge. Being in Yosemite is truly a transcendental experience. The word "grandeur" is hopelessly inadequate for describing the mountains that surround the floor of  the valley, and this was what I wanted to capture in a photograph. I was determined to include as much as possible, so the side of the Lodge and the surrounding mountains would be included in a vertically oriented photograph. To accomplish this, I needed two important items: A steady tripod and a suitable off-camera light source. Out came the Zumbrella with two SB-800s mounted in a home-made double bracket. I would trigger the flashes using an SB-900 as a commander, although I should have used some sort of radio trigger, since I was getting several "failures to fire" until I properly oriented the flash head. One more important thing: you have to shoot fast to keep the light consistent from the beginning of the session to the end.

The nice thing about this technique is that I can place the light just about anywhere I wanted. In this case, you can see that it's centered and overhead, throwing the shadow behind the couple. One thing I didn't count on was lens flare. You can see a hot spot on the Groom's right arm, and an overall flaring of the image. If I could do this over, I'd definitely use a EZ Box, but the Zumbrella is so darn portable...

After I made several shots, I cleared the set, and made one final image so I could have a clean background to work with. Exposure was unchanged, that is to say it was determined before the shooting started, and locked in on Manual Mode.

Finally, I made a sandwich using the image of the couple on top, and the clean background below. Then I used the Eraser to eliminate the Zumbrella and the hand, leaving the uncluttered background to show through. Some small adjustments to clean up the effects of the lens flare, and the following image was the result.


Without Photoshop, I would have needed a very tall light stand and an enormous umbrella to achieve a similar quality of light. But I was able to use a smaller, easier to  handle umbrella and position it close the subjects, allowing me to use two small speed lights to get the soft lighting I wanted for the photo. The final image will require some careful touch-ups, but this quick mock-up will give you an idea of how this can be accomplished. Also, the high-up position of  the light helped to keep the gown from being over-exposed, so the details and the texture are easily seen.

I am content that I was able to make the photograph I imagined. I only hope that in the years to come, it will remind us all of the magic in their hearts on this most special of days.

Where are you going my little one, little one,
Little pigtails and petticoats, Where have you gone?
Turn around and you're tiny, Turn around and you're grown,
Turn around and you're a woman with babes of your own.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

Let us pause to remember those who suffered so that we might live in safety; those who faced the darkness so that we might live in light; those who gave fully of themselves without thoughts of recompense. Remember them, always.

"May God make his face to shine upon them and grant them peace."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lessons Learned - The Obama Fundraiser

President Obama's Fundraiser in Redwood City showed how things quickly change in politics. My first Presidential assignment at Facebook was in 2011, so overt fundraising would have been gauche at the time. However, now that the race for the presidency is starting to heat up, people are not hesitating to show their dissatisfaction with the administration's efforts to reinforce a social infrastructure that definitely needs our help. There are going to be differences of opinion on how to achieve this, so it came as no surprise that protesters were there with a variety of grievances and agendas.

The initial press release stated that we'd be working  from a riser. This is pretty much standard procedure, and like gravity, you can't fight it. So the distance, combined with low light, would mean high ISO settings and long lenses. And since it was in a theater, it was probably going to be dark. So to be safe, I brought along a 300mm F 4.0 lens, since I didn't know how far we would be placed from the stage. This was in addition to my normal compliment of lenses: a long 70-200 2.8, a mid-range 24-70 2.8 , and a wide lens, this time my older 12-24 F 4.0 Tokina. With these four lenses, I pretty much had it covered. In my bag were 3 SB-800's and a Giotto Monopod in a baton ring on my belt. I decided that if I needed off camera flash, I would thread the base of a Nikon SC-28 flash cable onto the monopod itself. It would be an easy to unscrew the cable and attach the monopod to the base of the 300 lens when the time came. 

This shot was made at 1/250, F 16, ISO 200, off-camera flash at -2.0 exposure compensation. The flash was held over head on the monopod. This keeps the subject's legs from getting too bright and distracting the viewer's attention away from their faces. This is particularly important when shooting from a low angle, as I did here. I made sure that I aimed the flash directly at the faces so the intensity would be decreased on body and legs. A general rule of thumb: The closer you are and the lower your camera position, the higher your flash needs to be.

This shot was made with the same settings, but without the flash. Since the sign was held high it did not obstruct place the subject's eyes in the shadow. It's interesting how our attitudes can be shaped by our perceptions. The two gentlemen on the left appear to be confrontational, but actually spoke cordially at great length. I like the image for the inference of dissent, and for having the Century sign in the background. Context, context, context.

I happened to be with two other seasoned Journal photographers, Kore Chan and Bill Silverfarb. Our press releases said to be ready to check in at 7:00 pm, and having learned from my last Obama assignment, I was in line at 6:45. At 7:00 we were taken from station to station, first to get our identification verified, then to the wanding station, and finally to the equipment check. Then were were transferred to a waiting room where we were "locked up" until all of the members of the press had arrived.

At 8:00 pm, we were told that the President had been delayed at his last stop, and that we would move into position at 8:40. We were brought bottled water, a welcomed act of kindness. I will say that the members of the Secret Service, working with local police, were extremely helpful and did their very best to see that we were comfortable and secure. In retrospect, I can see that a certain type of person might consider our treatment overly restrictive, but in the greater scheme of  things, even the slightest breach of security was not an option. But our handlers were very aware of why we were there, and what we had to accomplish. They were also mindful that collectively, we had a "gazillion dollars worth of cameras", and knew that they were, in part, also responsible for the safety of our equipment.

Finally, at about 9:00, we were told to gather up our gear and enter the theater. We were ushered through a series of back rooms into the lobby of the theater, and herded, literally, towards the makeshift riser where we would be standing. Imagine entering a movie theater while the film was still running, stumbling in dark, and having to get your equipment ready to go. Smarter photographers hit the ground running, but I wasn't one of them. After testing both the 300mm and the 70-200mm zoom, I decided to stay with the longer lens, since the background wasn't really worth including in the photo. I mounted the camera on the monopod, made some test shots, and I was ready.

Since I knew I'd need some crowd shots, I decided to set my second camera up with a wide angle lens. I first thought that an available light shot would be possible, but after seeing my initial tests, decided to bounce a flash off the low ceiling (we were positioned just below the balcony). I fashioned a makeshift flag from a piece of cardboard (where was my Black Foamie Thing?) for the flash, mounted it on the camera and set the system aside. I would wait until the next standing ovation, then turn and shoot.

The President entered the room at about 9:45, and the crowd erupted in a standing ovation. My first shots weren't making it. But for that critical moment my attention was on the audience, not the President, and I missed a most wonderful smile when he first stepped to me microphone. However, a photograph from Reuters caught it. Oh well, lesson learned. I turned back to the President. My first shot went downrange at 9:51 pm.

Here are the first 18 photos, taken in a time span of about two minutes. I used to think that I overshot my subjects. But catching the nuanced photo that combines a gesture, an expression, and a context is difficult. When I started this series, I had only one of these three elements: context. Because of my position on the floor beside the riser, I was in perfect position to get the flag behind the President, a shot that could not have been made anywhere else.  This fact did not escape several other photographers, as the fourth frame shows the blurred backs of heads as they rocked back and forth, looking for their perfect shot.

I noticed that the President started to use his right hand to gesture to the side, especially when he was emphasizing a point. I changed my composition slightly to allow for more space on camera left, and waited. This is the image I submitted to the paper.

You can see from the composite that this image was not made during the first series of 18 images. In fact, it was the 100th image of a total of 130 made from this location. I would shoot 27 more frames before he made a similar gesture.

When the speech came to an applause point, I turned my second camera towards the audience, hoping for a magic "Obama Moment". What I found was the the 12-24 was having difficulty acquiring focus because of the slower, F 4.0 maximum aperture. I finally resorted to locking focus as best I could, raising the camera above my head, and while pointing and praying, took a shot. I could have used live preview, but under the circumstances, thought it faster to just point and shot. All of the subsequent images would require cropping, and this was the best of the lot.

This last shot was taken at ISO 6400 (effective), 12-24 Tokina at F 4.0, daylight balance. I didn't go to the incandescent white balance pre-set because I couldn't get a Full CTO gel on my speedlight while fumbling in the dark. I decided to let the foreground render "properly", and let the background go incandescent "warm". You can see the near subjects appear to be lit from high above, while those further back  have more even lighting on their faces. I made sure to photograph only during the standing ovations, both to capture more spontaneous expressions but also to allow them to listen to the speech without fear of being blasted. I am sure they would have preferred that I just go away, but a shot is a shot, and my editor needed this one. In order to make my deadline, I left when I felt the shot was "in the can". And since Kore and Bill were there, the paper still had coverage. Leaving early was the smartest thing I did. Getting to my car and back to office was a fast and easy.

The images were trasmitted by my 11:00 pm deadline, and would run the following day in the Journal. When I finally got in bed at 2:00 am, I was still excited, and would be for a long time to come.

Scratch 3 on my collection of White House Press Passes.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Under The Big Top

Smokin'! I was invited to photograph a charity fashion show in Hillsborough. I was eager to go, since I had never photographed a runway style fashion show, and was curious as to how it would be done. A while back, I saw a You-Tube short from a series of "What's In The Bag?" interviews, a question that elicits a different response from a photographer than it would from a fashion conscious young woman. Katy Wynn, a photographer for Getty Images, gave a pretty complete rundown on what she carries when she covers assignments on the Red Carpet. After viewing the video clip, I even went to far as to purchase not one, but two CB Junior flash brackets, since I liked the idea of not mounting my increasingly heavy speedlights on the camera's built-in hot shoe. But for this event, I brought only my standard bag along with my usual Zumbrella mounted in a bracket attached to a slightly modified monopod. Nothing fancy in the lens department, but they were all 2.8 fixed aperture zooms. I had toyed with the idea of bringing only "fast" primes, but remembered the advice I often apply whenever confronting the unknown: "When in doubt, go with what you know", so I took my 3 standard lenses: my 11-16 2.8 Tokina, my 28-75 2.8 Tamron, and my 70-200 2.8 Nikkor. I also carried 3 Nikon SB-800 speedlights, along with a supplimentary Nikon SD-8 Battery Pack modified to work with both the SB-800 and SB-900.

The fashion show was part of "Luncheon In The Serengeti", a major fund-raiser presented by the PARCA Auxiliary. It is one of the major Hillsborough social events, so many of the local movers and shakers were there, although nearly all were so modest in their demeanor that you'd never know. There was seating for over 340 guests under the main tent, along with a runway for the models and a podium for the moderators.

Ceiling Bounce In The Tent: When I first evaluated the shooting conditions under the tent, I thought that available light might be the ticket. A high ISO with a relatively fast lens could probably do the job. However, I was curious to try Neil van Niekerk's system of wide aperture, high ISO bounce flash. I added a Black Foamie Thing to my shoe mounted SB-800, zoomed it to 135mm to better concentrate the light, and angled the head to about 30 degrees from vertical. With the wide angle lens in place, I started shooting shooting some environment photos. With the flash blasting at full power, there was enough bounced light to evenly illuminate the foreground. The ambient provided the background illumination.

The exposure for this shot was 1/250 of a second at F 5.0. ISO was 800. Because the optimal flash setting for this aperture was full discharge, I attached the SD-8 to improve the recycle time. This shot was made with the flash head point nearly straight up. You can clearly see that the chairs in the background are under-exposed by about 1 stop, but there is plenty of detail. The viewer's attention is up front, in the foreground, where it should be.

The technique works well with a longer lens when photographing details from the luncheon. Since the event had an African theme, the chocolate elephant should come as no surprise.

Location, Location, Location: When the show started, I decided to position myself at the end of the runway and have the models walk towards me. Since this was a fund raiser, I felt that the back of my head was not the sort of thing these fine people paid to see. Had the tent any walls, my back would be against them. The distance from the runway was a problem because now I had heads and hands at the lower edge of the image, but I gave some thought to incorporating them in the composition. Another composition issue was the panorama on the far side of the tent. The closer they were the background, the more completely if filled the frame. Models just starting their walk appeared to be standing amid the plants and animals of Africa.

The greatest thing about this technique is the even light that results. The distance from the flash to the tent ceiling down to the subject is very consistent, so you're not constantly checking the exposure. I purposely didn't use iTTL because the background was sure to influence the exposure. So with that totally under control, shooting was breeze.

Light Contamination: While photographing in the tent, I noticed a strange phenomena: color contamination. Light striking the surrounding foliage was reflected back onto people standing near the edge, giving the shadows a green cast. This fellow photographer got the green double-whammy on the shadow side of  her face and hands.

I was very pleased with the ease and simplicity of using an on-camera bounce flash used over long distance. Using your most narrow beam setting can be very important in getting enough light up to the bounce surface to make the technique work. And kudos to the "Black Foamie Thing". The neutral inside surface of the tent helped, too.

This was fun. I'd do another such event in a heartbeat.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Veterinary Vision

During the month of May, Veterinary Vision in San Carlos gives free eye exams to certified service dogs. While on this assignment, I was introduced to another worthy organization, Paws For Purple Hearts, whose goal is to help veterans learn to train service dogs. Three golden retrievers, all litter mates, were being trained at PFPH for a lifetime deployment as service dogs for three disabled vets.

In preparation for the assignment, I left my 70-200 lens behind (after all, the office couldn't be THAT big), and instead carried a 60mm macro and an 85mm 1.8. I wanted a shallow depth of field for the shot, and since I would be shooting in low light, felt the speed would come in handy.

Here Eldridge, Elaine, and Ethan wait patiently while PFPH instructor Sandra Carson finishes the necessary paperwork. I chose the day when all three dogs would be getting their exams. This way I would have three chances at making a decent photograph. Having discussed the procedure with Dr. Albert Mughannam, the veterinarian who would be performing the exam, I decided to make my shots from over the Doctor's shoulder and concentrate on the dog's eyes. I had given the shot considerable thought, and knew that I would need to include some dog features to help the photo along. I was hoping to include an upright ear or a snout in the photo to add some context.

With the first dog in place and with Dr. Mughannam in position, I was ready. I had my 60mm macro mounted on my D300.  As soon as the lights went out, I knew I was in trouble. I had assumed that the fluorescent lighting would be on during the examination, but to examine the retina, you must dilate the pupil. Obviously, the simplest way was to dim the lights. I scrambled to adjust my exposure to the proper level. Also, the small spotlight that Dr. Mughannam used was probably close to an incandescent light source, so my initial florescent white balance setting was now way off. Rather than guess, I decided to run with it and hope that I could correct it in post production. I adjusted the camera to 1/100 second, F 2.8, ISO 800, and took a shot. There were some "blinkies" but not some much as to be unrecoverable when processed in RAW. I held my breath and started shooting. This first burst was a little busy, and a bit too menacing. I also wasn't getting the visual impact I was hoping for.

Now for the right eye. I decided to go with a faster lens to gain back one stop of light, so I changed to the 85mm 1.8, I re-set the shutter to 1/80, and shot at F 2.0, The ISO remained at 800.

In this burst, the last three photos are very close to what I had in mind. In fact, the are better in some ways because the dog's nose is clearly visible, and the the direction of the dog's gaze pull the photo together. Again, the background looked a little "busy" and might detract from the image. I noticed that the placement of the light was critical, since the eye was clearly visible only in the last shots.

The examination went very quickly, and before I knew it, all three were done. In desperation, I asked Dr. Mughannam to re-examine Elaine, the last dog, after making some specific requests. First, the large magnifying was held at the top of the image, above the dog's forehead, until it was needed. I also had the the magnifying glass turned slightly to show off its round contour. Finally, I asked that the examination light be held away from the dog's eye until I gave the signal. When I was ready, we started shooting.

While trying to maintain critical focus on the eye itself, some visual elements slipped in and out of the frame, specifically Ms. Carson's right thumb. It appears in full only in the first two sample images. In subsequent shots, she moved her hand lower on the dog's snout, cutting off the tip. Only the first two shots had the complete thumb and were therefore kept in the running, but only one of them is properly focused.

In retrospect, this was shooting at its fastest. The camera was not set to fire continuously because I wanted the option to determine, as closely as I could, the exact moment the exposure was to be made, human reflexes and mechanical delays notwithstanding. In all, 28 frames were taken in about two minutes, each one being the best combination of composition and timing I could make. There wasn't time to "chimp" between shots and there were a few dog-blinks and off-centered highlights. Looking back, the 85mm lens might have been a bit too long for the job. But the wide aperture gave me exactly what I wanted, so far as the eye was concerned.

Here is the final image, right out of the camera. The incandescent light source in the florescent enviornment of the examination room gave the shot a yellow glow which I neutralized in post production by removing the color cast. I liked the way the two hands surround the eye, and the way the highlight in the magnifier is aligned diagonally with the dog's eye and the corner of the photo.

I think there is a yin/yang simplicity to the photo. The reflection in the magnifying glass is actually an inverted image of the dog's head, and based on the alignment, draws the viewer's eyes directly to the dog's. I like the image for its simplicity, a sentiment shared by many who saw it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Calumet Wireless Transmitter In The Field

The location was the Filoli estate, and I was photographing a possible cover for Parenting On The Peninsula, a monthly journal on parenting and parenting resources on the San Francisco peninsula. When these photos were taken, the cover candidate was already "in the can" and approved by the editor. Since I was just "off the set", I was looking for some fun photos for my subject's personal use.

Since the cover photo was to be taken outdoors, I opted for a much bigger flash than my preferred Nikon speedlights. In this case, it was a Quantum QX2 flash head powered by a Norman 200B battery pack. The Quantum was mounted on a paintpole held by Cissie, my assistant, and shot through a Ziser Zumbrella.

I decided to use a Calumet Wireless Flash Triggering set to fire the flash instead of an Eilenchrome Sky Port. But how was the Calumet unit going to give me an advantage over the conventional Eilenchrome? In an earlier post, I mentioned that the Calumet unit had adopted one important feature that made it really special: You could mount a Nikon iTTL speedlight in the transmitter's built in hotshoe and maintain full access to all of the iTTL controls. Think of it this way:

  • If I used an Eilenchrome Skyport transmitter, I could control an off-camera main flash only in the manual mode. It would have to be adjusted manually. If I added a fill light, it could be triggered optically or with another Eilenchrome receiver. 
  • If I used the iTTL commander/remote configuration with several Nikon speedlights, I would have wireless flash control and could regulate the flash output of both the key and the fill lights from the camera position. But I would have to deal with the lower outputs and longer re-cycling times associated with the small speedlights.
  • If I used the Calumet unit, I could have the best of both worlds. I could wireless trigger my main light, which would be manually adjusted anyway, and use the TTL speedlight in the the transmitter's hotshoe to provide the fill light.
 Since the light to subject distance would constant, I was free to move in and out and vary the perspective and the composition while the TTL metered out a proper exposure to fill the shadows. This would give me the freedom to experiment with different distances and compositions and not worry about variations in the fill light. In this case, I dialed in minus 2 2/3 stops underexposure so it would not compete with the main light.
The key light was a single, full power blast from the Quantum/Norman set at full power at a distance of 8 feet. My exposure settings were F 13 @ 1/200 of a second, ISO 200, in a Nikon D300. I found out the while the D300 should have allowed for a maximum synchronization speed of 1/250 of a second, I was getting less than full light output due to the long flash duration of the Quantum QX unit. Essentially, the flash was still "burning" when the second shutter curtain started to close, clipping the light at the back end. This is not the fault of the Calumet unit, simply a limitation imposed by the Quantum flash. Incidentally, the new Pocket Wizard Flex unit has an adjustable offset that allow for a slight pre-trigger of the flash, something like "M Synchronization" on the leaf shutters of yesteryear. But I digress.

The lead photo turned out well. If you look closely, you can see the shadow of the nose on the subject's upper lip. The on-camera TTL flash filled the shot nicely. If you want to see what the shot would look like without any additional flashes, look under baby Nolan's hand. You'll see a dark, not black, shadow with very little detail. But the position of the on-camera speedlight was relatively close to the lens axis, so this shadow was minimal. There is one tiny drawback. If you look at this unretouched portion of Nolan's eye, you'll see two catchlights: one from the main light, and one from the on-camera fill. My father had always told me to avoid twin catchlights, and I suspect that he himself used Spotone to remove catchlights from more than a few images in his day. I did remove the secondary catchlight, just as I'm sure my father would have done.

The assignment was finished just as more and more visitors started to arrive. From our arrival at 8:45, we spent 45 minutes establishing the primary location and one hour for the cover shot and some additional supplimentary images.  Cissie and I managed to get a sandwich before the cafe got crowded, and left at 11:30.

Judging from the lead photo, everybody seemed to be comfortable with the shoot, including Dad. The outline of his nose shadow is easily seen because in this shot the light was coming from a relatively high position. And you can see the effects of the on-camera TTL fill had on evening out the exposure.

While I could have easily used 3 speedlights to achieve roughly the same light output, the faster recycle of the Quantum/Norman combination proved very useful when capturing this delightfully wiggly 6-month old baby. 

Update: October 3, 2016. For all intents and purposes, Calumet is no longer in sales. An equivalent radio trigger with on-camera  iTTL capabilities can be found here