Sunday, June 24, 2012

What I Keep, What I Delete

I heard a story about a a photographer who maintained a large inventory of stock photographs that were available for publication, for a fee. (In this age of intelectural property disputes, this may sound quaint. But let's skip the legal and moral issues for now.) In his lobby he had a 50 gallon garbage can filled with transparancies (slides) that were not up to his standards. He often joked that if any of his clients could find a usable image, they could have it for free. Such a deal. But when you think about it, what are the chances of finding a "keeper" among the thousands of discarded images? Remember that those images wound up in the junk bin for a reason.

I believe that a photographer should be judged not only by the images he keeps, but also by the images he throws away. I am using this assignment as an example of what I "threw away".

In an earlier post, I showed you some of the 130 images it took to get the one image that I felt best portrayed President Obama at a recent fundraiser. To save you the trouble, here are the numbers: 130 images taken, three images with an outstretched arm, two of them in focus, and only one with a good expression. For podium shots like this one, I usually submit the photograph that has the following qualities:

Hands: Hands (or hand) clearly visible against the background. Since the background was dark, this would be fairly easy. I needed to be sure that the hands didn't overlap the face, where they might get lost.

Eyes: The eyes must obviously be opened. But when a subject is wearing glasses, you also need to take the glare into account.

Facial Features: In this case, this means the smile, or the configuration of the mouth and lips when speaking. In addition, I believe that when my subjects face the viewer's left, the image is more compelling.

On June 14, 2012, I photographed author Luis Rodriguez at a fundraiser for the PCRC in Foster City. The photograph was made with my go-to, black foamie thing utilizing an SB-900 (on camera, zoomed to a 200mm beam spread, manual full power), and a Nikon D7000 with a 2.8 70-200 zoom at an ISO of 1600 and WB set to "flash". Exposure was 1/250 @ F3.5. I have to tell you, the speed light exposure and the fast shutter speed make for a very sharp image, which is to say that there is no subject movement whatsoever. I liked this image, but I could imagine it being better. But by how much?

Now here is almost the entire take from the morning's shoot. It usually takes a while to get a feel for the speaker's timing, so expect some duds at the front end. But once you get a sense of the speaker's rhythm, you can better anticipate when a gesture or expression is about to appear. And there will always be near-misses when one's timing is off enough to completely miss the exact expression you were trying to capture.

Now before you start asking for larger images, consider this: When a photo stands alone with a caption, the photograph is the "bait" to catch the viewer's attention. And when it comes to angling for eyes, I have found two things that almost always work: the color red, and high contrast points of interest. Since there is no red in any of the photos, I am relying on the contrast factor, and a quick scan of these small images will serve just as well.

If you scan the images quickly, you'll probably be drawn to photos where the hands are visually separated from the background. Whenever Rodriguez made hand gestures, they show up well against his suit and the dark background. Hands on the side of the podium? Not as noticeable. Based on hands alone, I might have chosen this shot.

The shallow depth of field make the eyes really stand out. The shot is technically good, but the expression didn't fit his animated speaking style. Eyes and Hands? Yes. Expression? Meah.  Oh yeah, he also appears to be looking at me. I find this a bit unnerving for a candid photo.

This next photograph has some good hands, good eyes, but not the sort of mouth I'm looking for.

I am out of viable, two hand candidates. I'm going for shots showing only one hand. Here, his left hand easily seen against the dark suit.

Now it is "normal" for some teeth to show when the mouth is open. But Mr. Rodriguez appears to have a condition called "under bite", where the teeth in the lower jaw are positioned in front when the jaw is at rest. If the photo was made at eye level, the lower teeth, rather than the uppers, are more likely to show. But when shot from below, the uppers may not appear at all. For that reason, this photo was scrapped. The glasses had a bit of glare, but I could have lived with that.

If you look at my final choice, you'll see it is something of a compromise. The single hand is clearly visible, but not dramatic. The smile is natural looking, as though he were telling a funny story. And the eyes are clear and sharp, relatively free from glare.

It took 48 images to find one that met my needs. This shot was number 43. I will admit it was a compromise of sorts, since I had at least one photo with more expressive hands. But in this final photo, eyes and facial features trumped the hand.

It should be apparent that just getting one good shot of an animated subject can be a hit or miss proposition. Obviously timing is extremely important if you're lucky enough to have the eyes, the hands, and the expression come together for a split second. And if you can react fact enough to press the shutter release at the critical moment, you will have it made.

In the end, it is just a matter of know which shots to keep, and which to delete.

One final note. These were obviously all flash exposures, and while I make it a policy to be as unobtrusive as possible, I was not the first, or only photographer, to use a flash. As a matter of fact, there was a Quantum Flash, with battery pack, mounted on a light stand just 15 feet from the podium. It was pretty obvious that somebody planned to deploy some major flash power, but for some reason, it was never used.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

More High Ceiling Bounce

The more I play with ceiling bounce, the more I like the results. It has certainly proven its worth on a variety of assignments, even in places where I thought there wasn't any way I could get enough light on my subjects. In addition, the ceiling bounce technique, coupled with the Black Foamy Thing, can help reduce glare from reflected light. Let me explain.

Because the flash head is aimed towards the ceiling, no light strikes the background directly. This allows the photographer free to adjust the shutter speed and aperture to suit the background, since the flash will influence only the foreground. In this sample, you can see that a Power Point slide is being projected onto a screen. Since I planned on using it as a backdrop, I adjusted my exposure so that the slide was well exposed. When the first speaker came to the microphone, I manually set the D7000 to 1/100 of a second at F 4.0, ISO 1600, Flash White Balance and took a test shot.

It is obvious that the proper exposure for background was underexposing the subjects in the foreground. So I turned on the shoe-mounted SB-800 with the BFT to prevent any stray light from striking the subjects head-on. Because the foreground subjects occupied such a small area of the image area, TTL metering was going to be unreliable. I started out by setting the flash to  manual, and set the output to full power.

It's clear that the flash is doing some very heavy lifting, and you can also see the effect of light "splashing" back onto the projection screen, cutting the saturation and contrast. But I didn't get a "hot spot" that usually accompanies an on-axis light source. But the Power Point slide is still recognizable, and it provides the needed context for the photo.

One other advantage to ceiling bounce is the separation of the subjects from the background. The light, coming from above manages to completely illuminate the top edges of the subject. Granted, a light on a stick held high above the camera will also provide separation, but when using ceiling bounce, the edges are more rounded. I also liked how nicely the texture of Representative Speier's coat was rendered, something that would be completely lost if a more direct flash technique was employed.

All in all, I really like this technique. Sure, I don't get the same catch lights and eye detail I would have gotten had I taken a "light on a stick" approach. But for shots with multiple subjects, this is the ticket. One other important factor: my subjects did not appear to be bothered by the flash going off, probably because the light was directed toward the ceiling, exactly where the bright room lights were coming from already. There was a tremendous amount of flexibility in this technique since there was very little variation in the flash-to-subject distance. I pretty much just shot and shot, and only "chimped" the images occasionally.

I was using a 35mm 1.8 prime lens instead of my normal fixed aperture zooms. This lens gave a full stop of "free exposure", which improved the responsiveness of the auto focusing mechanism. Since I was using a D7000, the 35mm lens behaved like a 50mm on a full-frame camera. I was still using the single-servo mode with the center focusing brackets, and the results were some very sharp, well-focused images. There was a lot of scurrying to compensate for the fixed focal length, but it was certainly worth it. The aperture setting of F 4.0 was 2 stops down from wide open, so I gained a level of crispness that one sometimes sacrifices when fixed aperture zoom lenses are used.

Ceiling bounce is not "beauty light". Because it comes from high up, the light can't reach the eyes effectively. But it does produce a reproducible image, one that holds up well to printing on newsprint. It also looks like room light, since the shadows are under the subject, just where you'd expect them to be. Finally, the light does not appear to be as annoying to the subject as direct flash.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My Last Wedding Post - Flash In Bright Sunlight

I am not a control freak when it comes to most forms of photography. I prefer to silently lurk in the background, observing the actions and interactions of my subjects, and make a photograph when something occurs that is emotional, sentimental, humorous, or visually interesting. This candid moment was a grab shot, as you can see by my brother-in-law in the background. This is the real me, "running and gunning", unfettered by the need to have every photograph a contender for next year's Pulitzer prize. I kid you.

One might assume that this would be a typical available light photo, since we're standing outside in bright sunlight. The problem comes from the exposure extremes your camera's metering system must consider when reconciling both highlights and shadows in the same photograph. Normally, the camera would simultaneously meter them both and select a compromise exposure, one that will inevitably overexpose the highlights and underexpose the shadows.

In this discussion, "highlights" are areas in the photograph that receive their illumination from the sun, and "shadows" are the regions that don't receive any direct sunlight.

For this shot, I manually set the exposure as follows: 1/250 of a second shutter speed (the shortest exposure that supports iTTL speed lights), F 16, and ISO 400. If you're old enough to remember the "Sunny 16 Rule", you would conclude that the image would be overexposed by 2/3 stop in a front-lit situation. Now this would explain the brightness of the highlights, but what about the shadows? I my case, I had a bare (no BFT or diffuser) SB-900, mounted in the hot shoe and aimed straight ahead, but dialed down to 1/2 power.  (9/13/12: Ooops. I should have said it was dialed to -1/2 EV. This means that the exposure from the speedlight would give 1/2 of the light required for a full exposure. Sorry about that). Based on the Sunny 16 rule, I am already overexposing the highlights by 2/3 stop. Now here's the catch. My speed light, functioning as an on-axis fill light, is dropping an additional 1/2 stop of exposure onto the shadows and on top of the already "overly exposed" highlights. For you math over-achievers, the highlights receive an over exposure of 2/3 of a stop, plus the addition of 1/2 stop from the fill flash giving a total overexposure of slightly more than one stop, 1 1/6 stop to be exact.

Now examine the shadow areas in this portion of the lead photograph. The shadows received 1/2 of the proper exposure from the speed light. If you look at Suzi's face, you can see that the tip of her nose receives light from the sun and the speed light, while the shadows are illuminated by the fill flash. If you look under her chin, you can see that without the flash, there would be very little shadow detail.

If I  had the presence of mind to refine my exposure, I would have reduced the ISO to 125 which would have given me a "sunlight" aperture of F 11 and kept the speed light output at 1/2 power. I could then drop the aperture to F 16 if the sunlit highlights were too bright. And I'm  not above reducing the speed light output even further, depending on what I am trying to achieve.

In an earlier post, I explained that you can use your speed light/s to expose your subject any way that you want if you can place your subject in a shadow of a building or tree. This shot combines a large key light source and a small, on-camera flash for fill.

For those who argue that "flash is dead" are missing an important point. Sometimes you need some sunlight in your pocket to bring the details in the shadows back to where they belong. In the end, it's all a matter of altering the lighting conditions to better match what we thought we saw at the time. And your built-in flash just won't have the power to be any any use when wrestling with the sun.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Wrestling With Light

I just finished reviewing the photos from my Niece's wedding. As wonderful as photography can be, the click of the shutter is only the start of a long, detailed process that includes file uploads, backups, selecting and editing the best images, and trying to weave them into a story that summarizes the main events of the day. If an album is the final product, there are covers to select, pages to format, and photos to crop and adjust.

Small weddings are the most fun, in my opinion. Sometimes big weddings can take on a personality all their own, not at all true to the personalities of the Bride and Groom. But here we're all one, new family, just getting know one another, learning to laugh together, and growing closer one conversation at a time. But aside from that, photographing the small wedding is less about documenting a choreographed spectacle, and more about capturing sincere, candid moments.

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, working with a strong ambient light source can have a disastrous effect on the finished photo. The sunlight coming through the window would overpower all but the most powerful flashes, but it can be managed to a point where a very acceptable photo can be made. This shot was made by using two Nikon SB-800 speed lights mounted in tandem behind a Zumbrella shoot-through umbrella. By doubling the number of speed lights, I could bring the output a little closer to that of the incoming sunlight. And if I can get the speed lights close to the subject, an increase in intensity will automatically follow.

The last thing I learned was to not photograph the scene head on. See the shadows on the table? The direction tells you that the light is glancing off on a diagonal. This will cut down on the the brightness of the white table cloth considerably, and allow you to retain some small hint of detail. Now the "brights" and not quite as hot, and much more manageable. Remember the term "specular highlight", which is a fancy term for glare, and exactly what you're trying to control.

Now check the image as it came from the camera.

You can see the reflection of the Zumbrella in the window panes at camera left. I held the unit high and to the left, hoping to get the reflection away from the glass. Unfortunately, this was the best I could do, but luckily for me, I was able to clone some foliage into the affected pane and hide the reflection very nicely. With some perspective corrections and some slight Levels adjustments, the shot was done. 

I'd love to say that I had all of this planned well before I made the photo, but that would certainly be a "pants on fire" admission. Truth be known, you can't always predict with 100% certainty that a candid shot will properly come together. But if you shoot enough, and study your mistakes long enough, you'll compile your own list of do's and don'ts that will serve you well the next time you encounter a situation that on first glace, appears impossible to beat.