Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bethlehem AD 2013

Photo #1
Bethlehem AD 2013 is a recreation of the town of Bethlehem as it might have appeared in biblical times. It had been on my "to do" list for a few years, and this time I was able to squeeze the last presentation of the year into my schedule. My goal, as always, was to try to summarize the entire event with a single photo.

Digression: When I was studying photography at the local community college, I read a book on the use of the 35mm camera for black and white available light photojournalism. I clearly remember the author’s basic kit: Two Leica M bodies, along with a 35mm and an 80mm lens. This minimalist approach to equipment stuck with me. Today, these absolute focal lengths were no longer sovereign, since the APS (or half frame) sized sensors of most current DSLRs would require respective focal lengths of approximately 24mm and 50mm, if the proportions were to be maintained.

Traveling Light: As an homage to the old school, I decided to shoot this assignment following this minimalist pathway. For this assignment, I would carry only the following:
  • Nikon D80 body
  • 20mm 2.8 Lens (approximately 30mm on the APS sized sensor)
  • Nikon SB-800 speedlight
  • CTO gels for the SB-800 and the on-camera flash
  • SC-17 flash extension cable
I carried spare batteries, spare SD cards, a P7700 in place of a second body, and a 24-70 2.8 Tamron to be used only in an absolute emergency.
Photo #2
Sneaking In: I had heard incredible stories about the long lines and the nearly impossible parking situation. Fearing the worst, I arrived at the facility two hours before the opening and parked two blocks away on Main Street. Really! That's where I parked. I walked over to the entrance and spoke briefly with some of the staff members. After chatting, I returned to my car to get my gear. When I returned, I circled around the back lot, trying to get a sense of the event. I found an open back gate and saw that a pen had been built to hold some period appropriate domestic animals. Besides goats and pigs, three regal looking camels walked about, obviously familiar with humans, and the treats they often carried. A family in period costumes made friends with the camels, so I started making photos. Photo #2 was done with the flash on-camera, with the Nikon diffusion dome in place. The flash head was set at a 45 degree angle to feather the light away from the lower edge of the frame.
Photo #3
Photo #3 was taken a little later. For this shot, the built-in flash served as a commander set to -2 stops. My SB-800 was the main light which I held overhead. The sky was darkened a bit, turning magenta at the horizon all by itself. Another version of the same setup can be seen in Photo #4.
Photo #3
I liked this photo because it would be easy to suggest that Charlie the camel was sniffing for treats. As it turned out, I didn't submit either of these two shots for the simple reason that Photo #2 had two smiling kids, which helped to carry the message of "kid friendly event".
Photo #4
In Photo #4, a "Rabbi" was calling his congregation to the Tabernacle using bugles made from the horns of an African Kudu. The green "glow" was provided by a gelled spotlight coming from behind the subject, and the low shutter speed (1/6 of a second, F 2.8, ISO 1600) gave some edge blur on the beard, but the face is stopped by the short burst of light provided by the on-camera flash. For this shot, the white balance was "Tungsten" and the shoe-mounted flash fitted with a CTO gel to give the ambient light a cool cast. I might add that this was the most successful application of "dragging shutter" I did all evening. I loved the lighting, but the shot doesn't carry much of a story.
Photo #5
I was getting ready to leave when I saw a procession just outside the entrance gate. It was the persona of King Harod "berating" those waiting their turn in Bethlehem (Photo #5).  Nothing special so far as my equipment and technique. My flash was camera mounted with the diffusion dome in place. The exposure, typical of the settings I used this evening, included a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second, an ISO of 1600, and an aperture setting of 2.8, wide open for the lens. The ambient light included blue rotating spotlights in the background and the headlights from passing cars, an odd juxtaposition of the old and the new. I was careful to align my shooting position with the blue streaks from the spotlights, so I was moving constantly. My final choice shown below, is also the lead photo for the post.
This last shot shows has a bit more action, and it was the photo I submitted.

One Body, One Lens? Perhaps. The 20 2.8 Nikor is extremely compact, and the D80 body light in weight. But I found the prime (non-zoom) 20mm lens a bit too narrow for my taste. Focusing speed was a bit of a problem when shooting at night, although I don't know if any other lens would have been significantly better. For the most part, the 20mm lens was long enough. So how about an 18mm 1.8 lens? Such a lens does exist at the short end of the Sigma 18-35mm 1.8 zoom lens. While limited to an APS sized sensor, it could prove just the ticket for photographing under similar circumstances.

I don't doubt that most assignments could be completed with the two prime lenses I mentioned, but there are going to be problems at the short end. Trying to get enough a wide enough view in a crowded Bethlehem was a problem when working up close. My old standby, the 11-16mm Tokina still reigns supreme in these close quarters.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Just Add A Flash

Photo #1
My Nikon P7700 has become a very useful tool, so far as outdoor photography is concerned. While the big buzz is centered on the Fuji X100s, I'll stay with my Nikon until I can be shown a good reason to switch over.

I made a shot (Photo #1) at a local high school's food drive. Since my office is down the block, I decided to walk over and scout out the location before deciding how to make the photo. As a lark, I packed the P7700 in my jacket pocket, along with a SB-900 and a notebook. When I got there, the students were busy tabulating the weight of the food donations. When I found this pair of students, I saw my shot. I simply stood on a chair, attached the SB-900, swiveled the camera's view screen, and made the shot from a high angle. I pointed the flash head towards the ceiling, which was thankfully white. Shot made with bounce flash (there's a hint of light coming from the open doors in the background), no fuss, no bother. Front page the next day. Life is good.

Doggies! This pre-Christmas shot was made at a facility that trains service dogs for disabled veterans. I had my full SLR kit, all 22 pounds, with my P7700 going along for the ride. When I arrived, the dogs were playing in a "snowbank" made of shaved ice, seeming oblivious the chill on their pads. The snow was plopped in the shadow of a building, resulting in a huge brightness difference between the shade and the brightly lit singers in the background. In fact, you can see the juncture between sun and shade just behind the dog.
Photo #2
To make the shot (Photo #2), a number of actions were necessary. Since the singers in the background were of lesser interest, I concentrated on properly exposing the dog in the foreground.  First, a low camera angle would help to emphasize the dog's face and reduce the amount of shady snow I'd have to deal with. The rotating LCD of the P7700 made this easy. Next came the lighting. To minimize the brightness difference between the near and far foreground, it was necessary to elevate the light well above the camera axis. I could have used the built-in flash as a wireless iTTL trigger for my flash, but the pre-flashing sequence can add a full second to the shutter release delay. Instead, I used an SC-27 flash cable (the black one) which nearly eliminated the delay. I mentioned in an earlier post that the earlier SC-17 cable (the gray one) can also be used, although it can't be used to connect the camera to a flash serving as a Commander in the CLS configuration.

I held the cabled flash at arm's length high over the subject. I did my best to feather the lower edge of the light by tipping the flash up. I did miss the dog's paws slightly, as they are slightly underexposed. The snow required some slight burning in post production to even out the brightness, but overall, the result was a shot full of shadow detail. The exposure was 1/400 of a second at F 6.3, ISO 200. This exposure could have been duplicated in a D70, or approximated with a D7000. However, the P7700 gives iTTL synchronization up to 1/2000 of a second, giving much more latitude when trying to get acceptably exposed images "on the fly".
Photo #3
The Thorns: The P7700 isn't perfect. It has many of the shortcomings shared by nearly all non-SLR digital cameras. I can't speak for how the high end Point and Shoots (not meant in the pejorative) such as the aforementioned Fuji S100x or the Sony RX1, but the autofocusing can be painfully slow under tricky lighting conditions. This shutter lag makes "decisive moment" photography difficult and frankly, the iTTL delay just adds to the misery. Photo #3 doesn't look like much, but a few seconds before, the dogs were surely doing something really cute.
Photo #4
Depth Of Field: The P7700 has a small sensor, smaller than the APS sized sensor of the X100s or the full frame sensor of the RX1. Without getting technical, this translates into an unreal depth of field at any given aperture. This photobomb, courtesy of Ford, the Golden Retriever in Photo #4, shows his relatively sharp face in the foreground and some sharp trees in the distant background. This really surprised me.
Photo #5
Fine Tuning: When balancing a foreground subject in shade with a fully lit background, subject placement is extremely important. In Photo #5, you can see my subject is completely in the shadow of the building. This prevents "hot spots" that will be seriously overexposed when the additional lighting from your flash hits the subject.

If you look closely at the snow behind the subject, you can see the line where direct sunlight and the shadow meet. Just be sure that you subject stays completely in shade. Notice too that all of the shadows are pretty much pointing in the same direction, namely towards the shooter's right, helping to make the image more natural.

The P7700 is getting to be the outdoor go-to camera when flash is needed. This doesn't make my Sony R1 any less useful, but its inability to function in a TTL flash exposure mode makes it better suited for more deliberate shooting, while the P7700 is just easier to use. So long as I stay with low ISO settings, I can safely ignore the noise issues associated with small sensors. So while I consider it very useful tool, the P7700 won't replace the DSLRs in my kit any time soon.

December 18, 2013: A quick update. From my point of view, images with plenty of shadow detail reproduce better on newsprint. I don't make a claim that these photos are necessarily high art. They are successful in getting the point across and have lots of shadow detail. 

One other gripe: The Nikon lens hood retails for $50.00, and I'm a bit distracted because I can't remember where I left it. I later bought a Chinese knock-off, complete with a 58mm lens cap, for about $12.00, and I can't find it either.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

It's Not All Smiles And Sunshine

I can honestly say that I've loved some of my assignments while enjoying nearly all of the others. I say "nearly" because there have been a few where "the wheels fell off" and the assignment ran sideways. I still managed to bring back a photo, but had some misgivings about them afterward.

 Publicists: Most fundraisers have publicists, or at the very least somebody who functions in that capacity. Larger organizations have full or part time positions, while smaller events will have a volunteer from within the organization. Their duties include writing and distributing press releases, coordinating access to the event, and helping smooth the way for visiting members of the media. Several large charities have delightfully helpful publicists, and do whatever they can to see that I get the shots I need, since a better photograph improves  the chances the shot will run. Certainly their attentiveness is incentive for me to shoot the additional frames that are sometimes needed to refine the image I will ultimately submit.

Well, If You Must: This has not always been the case.  I received the assignment to photograph at a landmark mansion that was the venue for a lecture/fundraiser.  As always, I did some research into the estate's history, and I was most impressed. It  was first occupied in 1916 by an heiress to a major railroad fortune. When I checked in with my contact, I received a forwarded quotation from the event sponsors:
  • (Contact) will meet the photographer  in the courtyard and stay with him at all times. He’s free to take his pictures and then can leave since the only rooms that will be open at first are the Salon (coffee served) and the ballroom (lecture).
  • Any text written with the photo should emphasize (event sponsors) not the (foundation) site specifically, just that (event sponsors) hosted an event at the (foundation).  The publicity is for us not for the (foundation).
This is the first time I've ever been sent so restrictive a set of guidelines and had considered cancelling the shot on principle, but I had made a commitment to my editor and my contact to show up,  and my reputation for reliability was more important than the dismissive attitude of the event sponsor. I think my contact was a bit put off by the wording, and forwarded the message as a way of distancing herself from the event sponsors.

The shot was made, submitted, and finally published. And yes, I got over it...
Photo #1
The One That Got Away:  I was photographing a toy give-away at a local charity. Under these circumstances, I normally don't photograph children, since accepting a gift from a charity may be seen as an unwanted intrusion. However, this child started playing with one of the Hula Hoops, and he responded well to my suggestion to "show some attitude" (Photo #1). I decided to shoot first, and ask questions later. Since he wasn't clinging to an adult, I assumed that he was the child of an adult volunteer. 

When I finished shooting, I asked him if his Mother or Father was here, he said "Yes", and pointed them out. I went over and introduced myself, and asked if I could submit the photo for possible publication. When I told her I would need her son's name, Mom hesitated, and declined the offer. I gotta tell you, my heart sank. True, I could have insisted that I had the "right" to make the photograph, but any attempt of argue my case had the potential for some hurt feelings.

I still thought the concept was good, so I set about trying to duplicate it. As it turned out, the event supervisor remembered me from other photos I had made at the facility, and as we started to talk, I found out that his own grandson was volunteering. I showed him my now unusable photo, and asked for permission to use his grandson as a model for a second attempt. Austin (at the left) was reluctant to do it, but agreed to do it if his friend Johnny (right) could join him.
Photo #2
I knew that they needed to be staggered to add some depth to the photo. Instead of choosing the "front man", I asked the two to decide for themselves, using "Rock, Paper, Scissors" to determine who stood in front. This being settled, that started hooping, and I started shooting. The second shot (Photo #2) managed to salvage the flavor of the event,  but the first image was the better shot. But since I couldn't use it, a little improvisation was called for.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Equinox Fitness - Movember 2013

I received an assignment to make a photograph about Movember, a men's health awareness event sponsored by a local gym. For the month of November, participants grow their mustaches to show their participation in the program. She told me that there was a gym logo on the floor of one of the workout rooms, which I interpreted to be a suggestion to use the logo if humanly possible.

The gym was a five minute drive from my office, so I scheduled a preview session the day before the scheduled shoot. This would give me a chance to meet the right people and check out this logo. I learned two things: the logo was about nine feet across and that there would be about 15 heads to work with. I decided that the floor shot with a straight-down perspective would do the trick. I spoke with David, my lead contact on the ground, and he liked the idea.

To get the shot, I needed to get the camera as high up as possible. David offered a ladder, but if I used it, its shadow might be cast on the subjects below. I solved the problem by mounting the camera on a monopod (essentially a five-foot long single tripod leg) angled at 45 degrees to the lens axis. I tripped the shutter using a Calumet Wireless Trigger. While I normally use it to fire my flashes, the unit will act as a remote shutter release with the appropriate cable. The Nikon kit comes with two cables: a D300 and one for the D90/D80 and the D70s. I purchased the D7000 cable to complete the set. I wrote the appropriate camera model directly on the cable (below, left) using a Sharpie Paint Marker. The cable was inserted into the port at the back of the Calumet receiver (below, right).
The kit includes 3 cables: N6 (Nikon D70s and D80); D8 (D300/s, D700, and Pro Level Bodies); and N10 D90, D7000, P7700). A more complete listing is available on the on-line Calumet Catalog. Warning: Not every Nikon can accept an external shutter release. Most of these can use the Nikon ML-L3 Infrared Release, but those are line-of-sight transmitters better adapted to making selfies, since the camera's sensor is normally found on the front of the camera, facing forward. 

When everything was ready, I straddled one of the subjects and I held the camera aloft, directly above the logo, and made my shots. During the post processing, I made some minor adjustments to correct a very slight perspective problem.

Now For The Hard Part: Now I had to get the names of my subjects. Since most of them had somewhere else to be, I relied on David to provide the names. Because he wouldn't be returning to the Gym, I had to send him an e-mail with the image attached. To simplify the image, I removed the color from everything except the faces.
Next, I numbered all of the subjects. This way there could be no doubt about I used the Text Took making a layer for each number. When I was done, I flattened the image and converted it back to a JPG file. The "Not For Publication" is standard notation for me, since I won't release  a photo until after publication. There is no doubt that this photo is simply a working preview. I got an immediate response, so the photo was sent to the Journal's queue.
Kinda fun. The participants were pretty jazzed when I showed them how it turned out.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Cover Shot Redeux

Photo #1
Busted:  The cover image I described in the earlier blog was not as well received as I had thought. Perhaps the GED isn't something we joke about. But there were some objections that it wasn't apparent why the student was suffering so. I guess the tongue and cheek reference in the caption wasn't enough to carry the image. I was fully prepared to re-shoot the photo. It was cutting it pretty thin, because the files had to be submitted to the printer that very afternoon. And since there was as caption re-write, along with some yet to be written text still waiting in the wings, this shot had to be a keeper on the first take.

The re-shoot did give me a chance to show some "behind the scenes" stuff about shielding the LCD monitor from any glare caused by the bounced electronic flashes. If you look closely at Photo #1 and compare it to last week's version, you'll see that I shifted the main light to provide more of a ceiling bounce, just what you'd expect from a typical classroom. The light in the background is so flat it is barely there.

Photo #2
You can see the glare on the LCD in Photo #2. If I didn't do something to minimize it, it would be impossible to see the GED website. The solution was to build a roof over the monitor to prevent any glare from above, and a to position a "wall" to prevent spillage from the walls.

Photo #3
In Photo #3 you can see the placement of the two "scrims" (the technical term) held aloft with light stands. I used Calumet 42 x 78" Aluminum Frame with a silver/black facing. You can see from the shadows that the lighting for this setup shot was still high and from camera right. This was before I decided to go with a straight-up ceiling bounce.

Photo #4
Photo 4 shows that the monitor is adequately protected from glare. The surface is nearly black. You can also see the light fall-off in the lower edge of the frame. 
Photo #5
On the day of the shoot, I arrived at 8:00 am, an hour before the first students were scheduled to arrive. As you can see in Photo #5, I made a decision to reverse the positions of the two monitors, mainly because I wanted the student to face camera left. The glow in the student's face was provided by a single SB-800, bounced off of a sheet of blue paper taped to the LCD panel. This is a McNally-ism, a trick that Joe described in one of his books. After some trial and error, I managed to align the speedlight so that it was completely hidden by the monitor, although some tell-tale glare can be seen on the desktop beneath the monitor. You can also see the blue catchlights in my glasses. The bounce flash room light was cut back by covering the reflector with some cardboard, a quick an dirty way to lower the light levels. I liked the effect, but didn't feel it appropriate for a classroom, so I removed it.

Once the photo was populated with real people and the proper display was transmitted to the monitor, the image makes a little more sense. It had been my intention to make the exposure with the widest possible aperture to blur the three subjects, but in my haste to get the exposure under control, I started to use smaller and small apertures, resulting in more focused detail in the background. So if anybody asks if I knew the background was out of focus, I simply say that that's what I intended. After all, it was the GED logo that was important, and that is sharply rendered. By the 10:30 transmission deadline it was on its way to our graphic artist who would combine the image with the cover text and tweak the file so it would print properly.

Feature Photo: After clearing my equipment from the set, I prepared another classroom for a quick head shot of a new staffer. It took an hour to get everything in place and adjusted for the shot, with most of the time spent just getting the equipment out of storage. This portrait was made in less than 15 minutes. This was followed by the creation of a caption and inserting the image and text into a blank page in our brochure. Eventually all of the pieces fell into place and the files, including the cover layout and the headshot, were electronically transferred to our printer. For the technically inclined, the main light was provided by a single SB-900 fired through a 24" Lastolite Ezybox with a white-surfaced Calumet Frame for a bounced fill. A small softbox was placed overhead to provide some separation for the hair, an a snooted speedlight, pointed directly at the background, gave a bit of "glow" on the background.

I must admit that the 15 minutes spent with my one last subject was much less stressful than the time spent getting the cover shot, and was the real high point of a well-spent day.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cover Shot

I needed a cover shot for the Spring 2014 Adult School Brochure. The theme for this semester was the introduction of a new GED Test format, one that will be delivered via computer. The test format has also changed, requiring entirely different strategies for those challenging the test. I wanted to include a flat-screen monitor featuring the GED logo in a classroom environment. I had planned on including a student, totally focused on his/her studies, preparing to take the test. How I finally arrived at Photo #1 is a bit of a cake walk, but the technical issues were addressed in a most systematic way. 

Every Flash Photograph Is Actually Two Images. This is important to remember. The first step was to separate the image into the background and the foreground components. In this image, the foreground was the monitor. For this shot, I used two scrims (opaque panels) to shield it from as much ambient light as I could. This allowed me to concentrate on the background, since the monitor would be providing all of its own light. The first scrim acted like a roof to shield the monitor from any top light, while the second scrim acted like a wall to minimize light hitting the monitor from the side.

I placed a tripod on top of some desks to support the camera and provide a slight downward perspective on the filing cabinets in the background. The monitor was positioned in the lower left hand corner of the composition, with the out of focus background hinting at student record storage.

To provide overall room lighting, I used a 800 w/s Norman flash bounced off the wall from camera right. The exposure was made at 1/200 of a second at F 4.0, ISO 100, Flash white balance. The 105mm focal length and the fifteen foot distance between the camera and the monitor helped blur the background. The short exposure time in this test shot minimized the influence of the ambient room, allowing the flash to provide the necessary illumination.  (Don't forget: flash exposure is only affected by the aperture size).

Photo #2
In Photo #2, you can see that the background is properly exposed and the lighting on the student (me) sitting at the desk was a good starting point. In this shot, I was just standing in for the student/model I planned on recruiting from another classroom. Notice the absence of glare on the LCD panel's surface.

Nikon D300 To The Rescue: I chose my Nikon D300 instead of my usual D7000 because of a single feature: When you select the Self Timer mode, the cameras stays that way until you choose another setting. In most cameras, you are allowed only a single self-timer exposure, forcing you to reset it for each shot. The D300 was the more convenient choice, since multiple time shots would be required.

Photo #3
In Photo #3, I turned the monitor on. By itself, was not bright enough to balance the flash exposure. So the next step was to turn off the room light and the flash, and adjust the exposure time until the monitor's brightness was raised to an acceptable level. 

In Photo #4, the flash and the ambient lights were turned off and the exposure time lengthened to 1/20th of a second. Two staffers volunteered to stand in for the teacher and student I hoped to add to the finished image, and can be seen in the background.

Photo #4
Putting It All Together: Just for fun, I made an "Arrgh!" face just when the photo was taken (Photo #5). Here's the nearly completed photograph, taken with the electronic flash on and the lights off. The monitor was off for this shot. To facilitate the repositioning of the hoped for teacher and student, I asked that the chairs NOT be moved. This would help anchor the positions in the background. When I showed the sketch photo to people in office,  I was surprised at how well my "frustrated student" portrayal resonated with those who saw it. So I stayed with the concept, hoping that i would be replaced by a more believable "student".

Photo #5

The empty desk bothered me, so I thought about what "props" I could add to evoke a sense of a student studying but feeling a bit frustrated about the whole effort. I added the following props:
  • Crumpled Paper
  • A Large, Open Book
  • A Calculator
  • A Pencil
These items were arranged on the desk in a way that suggested a student studying at a desk. With everything in place, I waited until the school day ended so I could shanghai a teacher, a student, and a more realistic student "screamer".

Showtime: When it came time to make the actual shot, I found out the the need for a teacher hadn't filtered through the ranks, so I didn't have a real teacher or two real students to use. I quickly grabbed two believable staffers and after a minute of soul-searching to find my inner student, made the following shot (Photo #6) in a single take.

Photo #6

Closing Argument: Two final comments on the shot. First, the plane of focus is clearly on the computer screen. This was deliberate. I had built the original image concept on a student studying quietly (see Photo #2) and purposely want him/her to be out of focus so that all attention would go to the GED screen. Second, small details can add enormously to the finished image. The crumpled and open book add something to the image, suggesting both commitment and frustration, exactly the feeling I was after.

The San Mateo Adult School's circulation includes about 95,000 residential addresses, and I have already  braced myself for a deluge of autograph hounds and groupies hoping to actually speak to me. Of course, my Director may reject the direction of the cover project, so be prepared for a posting on a super quick replacement cover shot.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Plan B

Photo #1
For me, Plan B is often a "Go For Broke" situation where you pull out all of the stops and do whatever it takes to get a photo. Sometimes it resorting to techniques that might range from distracting to down right annoying.  In earlier posts, I made clear my reluctance to use flash whenever it might interfere with my subject's concentration, or have an adverse effect on the environment. This generalization is aimed primarily at on-camera, direct flash, which by its very nature ranks high on the annoyance factor. Of secondary concern is indirect, or bounced, flash, which is far less conspicuous, but is probably best described as distracting.

Award Ceremonies: I had some time to plan for Photo #1. I arrived well before the presentations were made and had a chance to evaluate my lighting options, which were the pits. First off, the background was black velvet. Second, there wasn't enough existing light to properly illuminate the image. For this reason, I decided to go with speedlights, one key light on a light stand and one fill light mounted on camera. Out of deference to the audience, I only shot during the applause period after the acceptance speech. The key was an SB-800 triggered with a Calumet Wireless Flash Trigger. Because I would never be sure of where I was standing, I couldn't rely on the "line of sight" limitations of the Nikon's CLS optical triggers. The fill light was conventional iTTL which the Calumet system allows for. The shooting aperture was determined manually, and the iTTL simply went along for the ride. This was the only photo of the set with a good facial expression, and the one I submitted for publication.

Fundraisers: The next sample came from an annual fundraising luncheon. In this case, lighting was a bit better, in as much as they and installed spot lights to provide frontal lighting on the presenters. This worked reasonably for the audience, but for a photographer working from the sidelines, the exposure was less than optimal. Photo 2a was "right out of camera" and there is no detail in the shadows.

Photo #2a
While this photo is an accurate "capture" of the moment, it shows action, but no reaction, as noted wedding photographer David Ziser, would have said. Since I knew that a "standing ovation photo was definite possibility, I kept an SB-800 speedlight with a CTO gel with me. Since I had set my camera to a Tungsten white balance preset, the light from the speedlight would match the ambient light on the speakers. When the speech was over and the audience rose to applaud the speaker, I figured I could take off the kid gloves, attach the speedlight, and go for it.

Photo #2b
I was very pleased with the results (Photo #2b) and that the Through The Lens (TTL) metering by the bounced flash did a great job of filling the shadows while preserving the ambient key light. If you look at the shadows on the stage, you can see that the light is clearly from camera left, and the the main speaker is clearly separated from the ceiling in the background. I might have been able to find a better position, but decided that standing beside the stage just wouldn't be appropriate. I did achieve an "action/reaction" aspect to the photo, and since it was an awards ceremony, totally in keeping with the editorial intent.

Museums and Exhibits: Museums are the ultimate "No Flash" zone for a number of reasons. As a visitor, there are few things more annoying that a constant series of distracting flashes made at intervals by some overly enthusiastic photographer. Then too, many works of art are sensitive to bright lights, so the issue becomes one of long term preservation. Certainly the darkened interiors found in most galleries would suggest this.

My editor was hoping to get a photograph of the "official spokes-model" for the exhibit standing next to one of the clay figures in the exhibit. When she managed to get the model to go into the exhibit itself, I grabbed my gear and followed. Once we positioned him in front of a suitable statue, it was my turn to produce. I remember fumbling in the darkness, pulling out a D7000 with a 17-55 2.8 Nikkor in place. I was shooting with the aperture priority setting so I had no real idea where the shutter speed would wind up. I positioned my SB-800 to bounce off of the wall behind me, which was almost black. Somehow I managed to find proper focus, so I held down the AF/L button to keep it from shifting. After three minutes, I had ten shots. The camera had chosen an exposure time of 1/8 of a second for my aperture setting of F 4.0. My ISO was set to to 800, with the flash white balance preset.

The funny follow-up to this shoot was that right after the first shot was made, another journalist cried, "Look who's here!", referring to the spokes-model. The EVERYONE came over and a blizzard of flashes followed, allowing my editor and me to quietly sneak out of the exhibit under the cover of darkness.

Looking back on these three assignments, I was saved by having some specific techniques in mind, and carrying the equipment to make them happen. I have since added a flashlight to camera bag, should I ever need to work "in the dark". That way I'll be a little better prepared the next time I must resort to Plan B.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Outdoor Flash - Beating The Sun With 2 Big Flashes

Photo #1
I made this photograph (Photo #1) of one of the four student soccer teams competing for the Mr. T Cup at the San Mateo Adult School's summer soccer tournament. While the shot isn't going to win me a Pulitzer, it does have the virtue of even lighting with great facial detail. I scouted out the playing field the day before to find a suitable background for the team shot. I chose to shoot into the sun to get more relaxed expressions on my subjects, knowing full well I would need to use flash to raise the brightness levels on the players closer to that of the open sky background.

For this shot, the "big guns" came out, namely a pair of Quantum T series flash heads connected to Norman 200B battery packs mounted on 8' light stands. They were placed about 30 degrees to the left and right of center, with the camera placed between the two stands. The flashes were triggered with a pair of Eilenchrome Skyport receivers and a camera-mounted radio transmitter. With both heads set to full power, I had a total of 400 watt-seconds between the two heads. One final note: the duration of the flash at full power, based on a table in the instruction manual, is about 1/400th of a second. 
The camera was a Nikon D7000 at ISO 100, flash white balance, with a 24-70 2.8 Nikkor set to 27mm. Instead of the D7000’s normal top flash synchronization speed of 1/250, the shutter was set to 1/200 due to the slight delay associated with radio transmitters. The aperture was set to F10, pretty much through a process of trial and error. So in a nutshell, the highest possible shutter speed would give me the darkest sky possible, and the aperture based on the output of the two flashes.

Photo #2

This closeup (Photo #2) of this player shows that the camera right flash appears to have been a bit stronger than the one on camera left, based on the shadow cast by the nose. This is because the subject is closer to the camera right flash, and therefore slightly more intense. If you look at his teammate at the opposite side (Photo #3), you'll see a change in the placement of the shadows.

In the final analysis, the shot works. The sky will be whatever brightness level (think shade of blue) the shutter speed and aperture will allow, and the aperture is based on how much flash power can be made available.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Get yourself a mirror and paint your own portrait, over and over. It's a great chance to experiment, you'll discover things about yourself, and you don't have to pay the model! (Susan Avishai)

Selfies. Ya Gotta Love 'em. Up until recently, I didn't know they had a name.

The shot at the top of this posting (Photo #1) never fails to amuse. Right after I made it, I brought it to my favorite lunchtime haunt, Nini's in San Mateo, and showed my handiwork to the waitresses, telling them I was photographed with my two identical triplet brothers. All believed it, at least for a moment, but their growing skepticism forced me to reveal my digital trickery. However, one viewer went so far as to state "...the middle one must be Tom, because he's the oldest". Ya gotta love 'em. More details later.

Making selfies in the film era was problematic because you could not gauge your success until after your prints were delivered. The immediately feedback provided by the digital camera's LCD panel allows you to adjust your exposure or composition should you wish.
Photo #2
Here are some useful strategies and techniques. The Left Hand Hold (Photo #2) is a very useful technique to master. Since all of my lenses have UV filters, I can use them as a mirror to assure proper alignment. 

There is one problem that you may encounter, particularly if you are not a supermodel, which I am not. The ergonomics of the camera make the Left Hand Hold relatively easy to hold, but pretty much forces you to photography yourself from the left side, or straight on. Supermodels may be many things, but being a successful photographic model requires a high degree of left to right symmetry in the face and body, a quality that is often overlooked.

If you look at yourself in the mirror, you may notice that one eye appears larger than the other. In my case, my left eye is slightly larger, perhaps due to a heavier lid on my right eye. Whenever I face away from the camera,  the left eye, which is nearer to the camera, will appear larger still, giving my face a slightly off-kilter look.

Photo #3
In Photo #3, I used a filtered flash coupled with an appropriate custom white balance setting to produce a proper skin rendition but forced the background to take on a magenta hue.

For this shot I used Gary Fong's Collapsible Light Sphere with one of his green fluorescent filters. I has been my experience that all of these filters work best when a custom white balance reading is taken, which I did. Doing so had the same effect as adding a magenta (color compliment to the green filtration) filter in front of the lens which gave a twilight look to the background. And since the (green) filter was attached to the primary light source (the Light Sphere), my skin tones are quite natural. I did crop the image slightly to remove some traces of bed-head. 

Photo #4
The next shot (Photo #4) was something of an extreme drag shutter shot. Taken at night, the key light was a speedlight bounced off the walls of the darkened dining room in front of me. The foreground exposure was provided by a single speedlight bounced off the wall. The background was illuminated by a  table lamp with a warm-white fluorescent bulb. For all intents and purposes, the bounced key light never reached the wall behind me, so the lamp provided all of the ambient light. In fact, you can see a reflection of the bounced light in the framed artwork in the background. The exposure was 1/2 second, and my slight movements created the irregular outline around me. The white balance preset was "Flash" to match the speedlight. In this shot, camera shake provided the ghostly edging.

Photo #5
When used outdoors, this same technique can produce some interesting images. In this photo made outside of my home, the street and window lights were used as simple accents because there wasn't enough light to fully illuminate the homes. In Photo #5, the left sample was made with the camera held relatively still, while the right was made with the camera panned from one side to the other.

Photo #6
This last shot (Photo #6) was featured in an earlier post. In this case I used an open aperture and a telephoto lens to provide the background blur. To make the shot, I positioned myself at the edge of a shadow cast by a nearby tree. This gave me total control over the light on my face, which in this case was a speedlight shot through an umbrella. The photo as actually made by a friend after I had done the setup and determined the appropriate exposure. It would have been impossible to hand-hold the camera since the camera was about ten feet away when the shot was made. Additional details on the shot can found by clicking here.

There is one take-away from these experiments: When in doubt, select the white balance setting that provides the best skin tones. In the mixed lighting conditions presented by these two experiments, I tried to keep the skin tones "realistic" and let the background go along for the ride. In Photo #3 I wanted the background to take on a magenta tone so I essentially set the camera's white balance to a generic Fluorescent setting and gelled the flash to match. In Photo #4, the white balance matched the off-camera flash, and the background just "did its thing".

Playing with different light sources and exposures can lead to some interesting results. While none of these selfies will be printed, each serves as a record of a lighting experiment that may provide a solution for a future lighting problem. Now if I can only get my subject to smile...

The lead shot was a sandwich composed of three layers. The three images (Photo #5) were made in front of a textured background using high frontal lighting with an accent light coming from the rear. The secret, if there is one, is to be sure that the camera is mounted on a steady tripod and that the camera not be allowed to re-focus between photos. This insures proper registration when the layers are merged together.

Photo #5