Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Winter Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Making A Photo From Whole Cloth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Telephoto Lens In Low Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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