Sunday, January 26, 2014

Martin Luther King Day 2014

Photo #1

I was back at the Martin Luther King Center in San Mateo to photograph the winners of a writing contest to pick the poem and essay that best captured the spirit of Dr. King’s work. The young writers included students from Grades 1 through 12, and their presentations were well written and warmly received. 

I had contacted the coordinators at the King Center to let them know I was coming. For better or for worse, I had already decided that I would try for a podium shot that captured the spirit of the presenter and the essay or poem. This is easier said than done, since few students, unless carefully coached, look up from their notes when speaking in public. For me, the hardest part is trying to anticipate exactly when the speaker would look up at the audience, and somehow trip the shutter at that exact moment.

Positioning Yourself: While I avoid moving about when I photograph, I always try to find a “sweet spot”, one where the subject is reasonably well lit and has a no foreground or background distractions. Once a suitable vantage point is found, the color temperature of the light must be considered. In this case, there was north-light coming from camera left, and incandescent accent lights coming from above. Not a ghastly combination, but one where the white balance would vary, depending on where the speaker was standing. I admit I was flummoxed by the white balance, so I set my cameras to “Auto” and hoped for the best. I was only going to submit a single shot, so it was practical for me to make the corrections during post-processing.  I am required to send only one shot, so selection, not processing was the more time consuming task.

Photo #2
I was photographing from the subject’s left side, which for reasons discussed here allows for an unobstructed view of the subject’s face should he or she decide to punctuate their presentation with a hand gesture (Photo #2). As it turned out, most of the speakers were too short to stand at the podium, so they held the microphone was hand held, and fortunately for me, nearly all were right handed. My time was spent trying to capture an expressive moment, something that didn’t come easily to these young orators.

Photo #3
Slow Reflexes, Fast Cameras: Photographing this young singer was somewhat more difficult than somebody simply delivering a speech (Photo #3). Many singers like to hold the microphone resulting in a certain percentage of shots where the mike partially hides the singer's mouth.  In addition, the shape of the mouth is different when singing, so your subject may not look "natural". 

Photo #4
This second shot show much more of the singer's smile, and resulted in a more pleasing image (Photo #4). Neither one was submitted for the simple reason that there were no references to Martin Luther King. There is a graphic illustration of Dr. King on the podium, but if I included it, the singer's head would have been too small. I decided to leave well enough alone, and would eventually send a digital copy of this image to the King Center for use in their newsletters.

Photo #5
If you look at Photo #5, you can see how small the speaker becomes when the Dr. King portrait is included. This adds to the photo context, but since most of the speakers chose to stand to the side of the podium, it became a moot point.

I would take nearly 200 podium shots, try to get good expressions and a sense of the event. I opted to rely on the caption to carry the context, and hoped the photos would be interesting enough to encourage to viewer to read them. 

Photo #6
I submitted a photo from each end of the age range. My First Grader (Photo #6) was photographed reacting to the audience’s applause, perhaps the first time his work had been so recognized. My High School Student (Photo #7) was the picture of dignity, certainly the picture of a young man who understood the power and depth of his own words. I sent them both, leaving it to my editor to make the final selection, something that she would have preferred that I had done. Still, I am comfortable that the spirit of the photo was different in each case, and that the editor should have a choice.  As it turned out, I had chosen the youngest and the oldest winner, so the paper opted to run both, and had wisely included a list of all of the winners.

Photo #7
Aspect Ratio: The aspect ratio for these two shots was 1.5, or 8X12 inches. I do this so that the editors will have some leeway in cropping should it be needed.

The Big Group. I had decided that I wouldn’t submit a single, large group shot. My reasoning was that a large group would translate into many small faces that won’t reproduce well on newsprint. In addition, getting all their names would be a nightmare, especially with so many excited children. The group shot would be made available to the King Center for their use, and any parent wish a digital copy could get one from the Center, or from me. Since I knew it was very likely that I’d be asked to make such a shot, I scouted out a location in advance, and selected a painted background in a courtyard adjacent to where the presentations were being made. This would give me a good background and some even, overhead lighting. I used an on-camera speedlight to provide a tiny bit of fill. Once I made some test exposures, I was ready.
Photo #8

As soon as the announcement was made that a group shot would be made, the young speakers started to file in, a combination of excitement and youthful detachment. As soon as the approached, I started arranging them by height for obvious reasons, but also to signal that there was somebody in charge and there was actually a plan.

Kibitzers. I was just preparing to make the shot when I noticed I was surrounded by nearly a dozen family members, each armed with a Smart Phone or camera, trying to grab a shot. This was a problem because each child was now looking around around, trying to find the parent he or she was supposed to smile for, or at. I knew I had to get control, so in my "Big Boy" voice, I said: 

"I know you're all very proud of your children, but I'd like to get a shot where everybody is looking directly at me. I wouldn't want your child to be the only one looking in the wrong direction. After I get my shot, you can take as many as you want."

True poetry. All of the adults put their camera phones down, and let me get my shots. I also made sure to tell them the I'd be taking five shots, and did my best to keep their attention on me. When I was finished, I thanked them all, leaving behind a mishegas of squirmy children and anxious parents.

In retrospect, I could have submitted this photo if I had recorded the names of all of the winners. On first glance, this would have been a daunting task, one that would take more time than it was worth, since I had already "chosen" the shots I was going to submit. Perhaps if there weren't so many anxious parents waiting for their personal photo op, I would thought to move up close and photograph the children in groups of two or three so I could read their names off of the certificates they were holding. 

Opening Photo: I included the opening photo (Photo #1) as a reminder of how much a background could enhance a photo. I liked the way the light was falling on this woman's face. What I didn't see was that there was a Martin Luther King poster in the background. Had I framed the shot to include the poster, I might has had a shot that might have had some "legs", although not to the same extent as the speakers who stood beside the podium, reminding us through essay and poem that we are making this long journey together, inspired by the noble words of Dr. King.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Las Vegas 2014

Photo #1
Wheeling and Dealing: I was in Las Vegas for a sporting goods trade show, one where vendors and dealers get together to promote new items and place orders. The sporting goods industry is big in the United States, and the conventions are equally so. Product promotions, lectures, demonstrations, and marketing workshops are all available to stocking dealers, while common enthusiasts like myself who manage to obtain the coveted tickets must be content to just to gawk at the latest and greatest. I was motivated not so much by the show itself but with a prospect of spending some quality time with some old and dear friends. 
Photo #2
As you can see, this isn't a small time event. The enormous computer generated banners made it easy to find the big budget manufacturers. It's pretty obvious that Perazzi is not a Mom and Pop operation. For this show I was traveling light, carrying only my Nikon P7700, putting forth my best efforts to make some reasonable photos. These two available light photos are not remarkable, but they served as small challenges to be met by applying some new or well established technique whenever possible. In Photo #1, I used a sturdy display fixture as  a rest for my camera. In Photo #2, I used the reticulated LCD panel to facilitate a low shooting angle to compress the distance between the ceiling banners and the people on the floor.

Photo #3
More Selfies: I wanted to experiment with some outdoor flash techniques from the Neil van Niekerk playbook. For this experiment, I set my camera to 1/30, F 3.2, ISO 200. As it turned out, I probably could have used a higher shutter speed. Photo #3 was made without the benefit of a speedlight. For the next shot, the flash was on and functioning in the TTL mode (Photo #4). The light was bounced off of a nearby granite building at a range of about 3 feet. The light is coming from camera left, providing some fall-off on the side of my face. Notice that there is a highlight coming from "New York New York" reflected on the paddle (side arm) of my glasses, a nice effect.
Photo #4

Of course, if I had been Joe McNally, I'd have added a gelled speedlight positioned to provide a "neon" highlight on the back of my head. Easy to do with a truck load of equipment and a handful of eager assistants, but difficult when it's just you and an idea.

Convenient surface can usually be found if you use your imagination. Obviously, these two selfies weren't made from the exact same position.

Photo #5
The Nikon P7700, as I mentioned in earlier posts, has the ability of synchronize flash at very high speeds. In this shot, the shutter was set to 1/2000 of a second, the aperture set to F 2.0, and the ISO set to 100. The flash output was set to 1/4 power in the manual mode to prevent "clipping" of the flash pulse. In this shot (Photo #5), the bounced speedlight was able to equalize the power of the sun. I was standing in the shadow of a nearby building so the sun was not contributing to the light hitting my face. The flash was mounted on-camera, and the head turned 180 degrees relative to the lens axis and tilted upward. Granted, the quality of this bounced light was very different from the harsh sunlight hitting the building down the street, but it proved that if bounced from a short distance, one could achieve a pleasing exposure balance between the foreground (me) and the background. 

Hey! Over Here! If you're wondering why I never seem to be looking directly into the camera, the reason is simple: When the reticulated LCD panel of the P7700 is rotated to face forward, it is a few inches to the right of the lens axis. When adjusting the composition, I am actually looking to the left of the lens, resulting in my off-center gaze.

Photo #6
Party Time: These same techniques can applied to groups, but there are some hazards. The more people in the shot, the greater the distance between the flash and the subjects. This is easily understood with direct on-camera flash, but the distance increases when the light is bounced, and diminished by the absorption of light by the bounce surface. For this shot, the ISO was raised to 800, the shutter 1/125, the aperture F 4.5. Here's where the smaller-than-APS sized sensor becomes a disadvantage in dealing with noise. I am sure that had I used my D7000 the results would have been better, but that's a lot of metal and glass to carry compared to the relatively tiny P7700.

For this shot (Photo #6) I chose to use the "behind you" bounce. While I was forced to sacrifice a great deal of light output, this technique allowed me to light my subjects from a much higher vantage point . The flash was about 6' off the ground (I'm 5' 6" tall) and angled upward, putting it well above my head. I would have needed an 8' tall light stand to duplicate the apparent height of my bounced light source, something I obviously didn't have with me. On camera direct flash would have been out of the question.

Incidentally, if you look carefully at the restaurant door, you can see a huge white glare spot. This is the reflection of the light bouncing off the building behind me.
Photo #7
This last photo (Photo #7) was a quick group shot made with the light bouncing off a wall just outside of the frame. Because of the relatively long distance the light travels when bounced, the light is very even from left to right, and provides good modeling and detail in the faces. The shot was made at ISO 3200, a definite "Hail Mary" move, but I got the shot.

It's becoming apparent that the P7700 is not the camera one uses to "push the envelope" under low light conditions. As I had said before, I use it to deal with the contrast extremes that often come with working outdoors in indirect sunlight. Unfortunately, this exercise may have pushed me a little closer to purchasing a camera like the Nikon Coolpix A or the Fuji X100s, cameras wtih APS-sized sensors.

One final note: The selfies I post are seldom much more than lighting sketches. When I'm actually shooting to get a specific look, I'll use the techniques I refined during these exercises as the foundations for a better, more memorable image. I only reasons I shoot myself so frequently are my availability and my willingness to be part of a spontaneous lighting experiment.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Maggie and Other Worthy Dogs

I Hardly Knew You: Maggie, my favorite dog/subject, left her family and friends on December 24, 2013. Although I played a very tiny part in her life, she was delightfully quirky, the sort of spirit who could be be truly funny without even trying. I believe she was very much her own dog, self-confident, living life on her own terms. I wished I had known her longer, and that we had met when she was the witty, mischievous pup I knew she was. I likened her to a grand dame, a woman of years whose very presence would tell you that the world was not only her oyster, but her personal chew-toy, and she made absolutely sure you knew it.

I photograph dogs whenever I want to practice photographing sports. Their owners usually don't mind when you photograph them, since strangers who love dogs are not perceived as threats. And if you can find a beach where dogs can play off-leash, you'll have lots of opportunities to shoot some fast action.
Photo #1
Follow The Snout: As with people, try to photograph your subjects when they are facing into the light. In Photo #1, the dog is looking into the light. This Visla happens to be my favorite "dog in motion" photo for the simple reason that this pose could not possibly be duplicated in a static environment. Definitely, a dog in motion.
Photo #2
Color Contrast: I made this shot (Photo #2) because the red collar contrasted nicely against the blue water. The placement of the feet make this dog look almost dainty, even regal.
Photo #3
Two Eyes: In my opinion, this shot (Photo #3, and Photo #2) misses because the far eye is partially hidden from view. As with human subjects, avoid "cutting" into the eye.The dog's blue eyes add to the shot, but it's still a photo that only the dog's owner could really love.
Photo #4
Smile! I have to laugh when I see this image (Photo #4). Like my late boxer, this Bulldog shows off a jaw full of tiny teeth, and the tendency for the upper lip to get caught in canines. I don't like the missing catch light in the left eye. A low power, on-camera fill flash could have helped, had I carried one at the time.

I know that some day, another dog will come into my life, and fill the emptiness left by Jocko, the dog that would define my relationship with nearly every other animal that would cross my path. Until that time, I'll be content to enjoy other people's dogs as my parents loved their grandchildren: unconditional, unlimited, and eternal.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Bethlehem AD 2013 Part 2

My last post covered Bethlehem AD 2013, a living diorama of how life might have been in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. That assignment was something I had wanted to do, and as I mentioned, was shot entirely with a single Nikon D80 and a 20mm 2.8 prime lens. Working with a prime (fixed focal length, non-zoom) lens was something of a challenge, since I was constantly shuffling forward and backward to get the composition I wanted. I have concluded that 20mm (30mm equivalent in the APS-sized D80) wasn't wide enough for some of the close shots I tried to make. I probably would have complained if I had an 11mm 2.8 prime (something that doesn't actually exist), complaining that it wasn't long enough to minimize wide angle distortion. Gripe, gripe, gripe...

Name Chasing: Before submitting a community photo, I need to get the names of anybody who is easily recognized. Publishing the subject's name serves as "de facto" permission to use the photo. When an assignment is the result of a press release, there is usually somebody who can help you with the names, and in most cases, permission to publish can be assumed. There was no press release here, so I was on my own.

When I arrived, I found this family of "reenactors" getting to know the Camels. I knew that this would be a shot worth pursuing, as it would have smiling kids and unusual animals. I immediately started shooting, trying to get a shot I could submit. As soon as I noticed that Mom and Dad were around, I quickly introduced myself and promised to shoot a group shot of them immediately after I got my money shot, providing I could publish it. They were happy to corporate, so I continued to shoot, confident that I would get an image.
Just so that you know: Camels and children move quickly, so there are many "near misses" in this unedited sequence of shots, presented in the order they were taken. You could say that I selected the shot with the fewest flaws, rather than the one shot that would win me a Pulitzer.

The Money Shot: The submitted shot wasn't perfect by any means, but had some important visuals going for it. First, the camel's head was in profile and easily separated from the background. Second, there camel looks like he is smiling, even though I am sure he isn't. And thirdly, all three faces are easily recognized. Dad (on the left) was cut off a bit and the camel's position makes the image a little heavy on the left, the the detail in the son's smiles help to salvage an otherwise awful composition.

Time was running out, and the family had to take their places in the town. I quickly ushered them over to a bench where I had Mom and  Dad sit which the children gathered around them.
Once arranged, I made a single shot, adjusted my exposure, and made a second. Before I let them go, I got their names, from left to right, so any and all could be properly identified when the selection process was concluded. Because I had the time, I used the built-in in the Commander Mode, providing a weak fill light. The main light was a remote SB-800 initially set to +2/3 stops. The original was a little underexposed, but correctable in post production. ISO setting was 200, shutter at 1/125 second, aperture at 5.6.

Camels Are Funny: I have it on best authority that camels like baby carrots, and next year I'll surely have some in my camera bag. These animals were both curious and gentle, walking about on pillowed feet. Quick too. This one managed to pull my press pass right off its lanyard, and I'd have lost it if a handler hadn't come over to pull it from the camel's mouth. 

When I look back that the images and the whole experience, I concluded that mysterious smile was actually a warning of mischief yet to come.