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.