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.