Sunday, March 23, 2014

Carl Clark, USN (Retired)

It was a privilege to photograph Carl Clark at an NAACP dinner in March of 2014.  In 2012, Seaman Clark received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device, more than 60 years after his courage and determination saved the damaged Destroyer USS Aaron Ward during the Battle for Okinawa in May of 1945.

Being a community photographer provides a variety of opportunities to photograph people in the celebration of their accomplishments. And while these awards are usually presented in a reasonable amount of time, it seems to me that a hero like Mr. Clark should have been recognized a long time ago. In spite of the delay and his then Captain's dismissive attitude towards a hero of color, he stayed in the Navy and retired after 22 years of service, achieving the rank of Chief Petty Officer. One could not help but admire his soft spoken dignity, in addition to his ability to fit into the dress uniform he probably wore at his retirement.

Getting Ready: One never knows how an event like this one will unfold.  I arrived 15 minutes before the event would officially start so I had plenty of time to prepare my equipment. Since the ideal shooting position was too small to accommodate both me and my camera bag, I brought everything  I thought I would  need with me on my shoulders, leaving my (essentially) empty camera bag safely by the sidelines. I carried my D300 "close up"  camera with a 24-70 zoom, and my D7000 "long range" camera with a 70-200. Both had SB-800 speedlights, the D7000 with a BFT and the D300 with the Nikon diffusion dome that comes with the speedlight. My reasoning was that if I had to move through the crowd to make my photo, the light dome would give me plenty of light to work with should the shooting get frantic.

I had assumed that the presentation would be made at the podium, so I made some warmup shots. With the flash facing forward and the BFT in place, I was able to turn the ceiling into a large, soft light source. One thing to remember: This works best when your shooting position is slightly below the subject. This will insure that some light will reflect off of the eyes and give you a nice catch light. It also helps to establish some distance between you and your subject. In this case, my working distance was about 12 feet. This is Congresswoman Anna Eschoo (D-Palo Alto), who was instrumental in getting recognition for Mr. Clark's heroism

Normally, the guest of honor would be asked to speak from the podium, but in this case practicality trumped protocol, and the speaker came to where Mr. Clark sat and continued her presentation via wireless microphone. Since I had my "close up" camera already on my shoulder, I just stood up and walked a few steps to a shooting position just across the table from my subjects.

I switched to my D300 with its 24-70 and removed the diffusion dome from the speedlight. After redirecting the flash head to bounce to my left and slightly  behind me, I started shooting. Bouncing the light from the ceiling behind me wastes a lot of light, but brings the apparent light source slightly lower which would give me a bit more fill light in my subject's eyes. These three shots were made in a time span of about 10 seconds, including a slight position change between the first and second shots.

Moments later, Congresswoman Eschoo turned to give him a hug. I was lucky enough to get this shot, which summed up the spirit of the event, clapping hands at the right edge notwithstanding. And while this event wasn't considered hard news, the Editor In Chief thought enough of the photo to publish it on the front page, above the fold.

Afterthoughts: It must be apparent from my posts that I make far more photos than I submit. As I mentioned in an earlier post about Photographic Rules To Live By, knowing what to throw away is as important as knowing what to keep. Here are two cases of photos that  "nearly ran".

Why Not Use The Second Shot? I initially though I would submit the second shot. While there is a little more detail in the Mr. Clark's face, lacks any obvious human connection.

Picket Fence, Anyone? "Picket Fence" is my term for a conventional group photo where everybody is standing like slats in a picket fence. I made sure I had one on my card, just in case the Editor In Chief wanted to play it safe. I sent him both photos, but he chose the more personal shot.If the picket fence had been chosen, I doubt it would have run on Page One.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chinese Time

When I was growing up, my family used to kid about "Chinese Time", a term meaning the perpetual state of arriving "fashionably late" to parties and events. It's a bad habit, to be sure, and certainly one to elicit annoyance from a seething host or hostess. While my parents arrived promptly at all social functions, they never seemed to go off as planned, being perpetually behind schedule. I thought this applied only to Chinese people, but I later learn the expressions "Hawaiian Time" and "Indian Time" from some of my Hawaiian and Native American friends. So Chinese Time is no longer unique, but a concept many groups can chuckle over and call their own. 

There was a traditional Lyon Dance being held on a Saturday morning at a local Recreation Center, and the Editor In Chief of the Journal had expressed a wish that a photo be made available for the Monday edition. Of course, being Chinese, I figured that it wouldn't start on time, and that the Lyon Dancers would be scheduled to perform later in the program. 11:10 am arrival to an 11:00 am event? No problem.

Since this was an outdoor venue, I carried two Nikon D70s bodies and 3 lenses: a 10-24, a 24-70 2.8 in case I needed a faster lens, and a 70-300 zoom. I also carried two speedlights, figuring that I would need some supplementary light at some point. I carried one body with the 10-24 lens mounted around my neck, with my messenger bag full of equipment on my right hip. I normally don't go into venues with a camera hanging around my neck, but I was glad I did this time. As soon as I got out of my car, I could hear the drums signalling that the dance was already in progress. I actually ran from my car into the park, a little bit out of breath when arrived.
Photo #1
Moments after I arrived the three Lyons left the stage and started working the crowd. I immediately set my wide angled D70s to Aperture Priority mode and set the shutter to 1/500 of a second, the fastest shutter speed available when using TTL metering. I mounted an SB-800 speedlight and set the beam angle to the 50mm setting, and started shooting. While Photo #1 is fun, the faces are too small to reproduce well. Also, the Lyon is facing away from the camera.
Photo #2
The Lyons moved through the crowd. This shot (Photo #2) shows some interaction, but once again, the faces are too small to have any visual impact.
Photo #3
As I stood next to this gentleman, he held out a "Li See", a small red envelope containing good luck money. In this case, donations would go to the Senior Center, and I caught this shot where the red envelope is clearly visible. Photo #3 was the result.
Photo #4
I got this shot (Photo #4) just as the donor reached deep inside the lion’s mouth to give his Li See to the dancer. I thought the lion’s eyes looked like those of an eager puppy dog, anxious to make a new friend. Ultimately, this is the shot I would submit.
Photo #5
I continue to shoot, confident that I had at least one good shot in the can. In this case (Photo #5), an offering was made to a different lion. The photo comes up short in several ways. First, the flash casts a very obvious shadow on the dancers waste. Also, because the donor is so much closer to the camera than the lion, he is severely overexposed. This can be corrected in post processing with some loss of saturation. Also, on close inspection, you can see that the lion dancer is looking the wrong way.
Photo #6
This shot (Photo # 6) suffers from the same problems caused by previous shot. The foreground subject is too close to the flash, and the middle ground lion too far. Again, post processing can help, but the overall look of the image suffers. 

What, No Off-Camera Flash? Joe McNally, the Nikon speed light guru, is known for producing fantastic, multiple speedlight photos when working on location. However, when working alone in close quarters, and on camera fill flash may be your only recourse. As you can see, trying to properly light foreground and mid—distance subjects will lead to overexposure of the former, and underexposure of the latter. One way to minimize the problem is to zoom the flash head to a beam angle narrower than the angle of acceptance of your lens. This concentrates the light in the center of the frame, and feathers the light on the sides. In this case, rotating the flash head to the left would have also cut the light on the right side frame. These last two suggestions came from David Ziser, by the way.

Today's Mistakes Are Tomorrow's Experience: While David’s advice works in theory, in actual practice the light pattern of most speed lights tends to remain constant from left to right. When zooming the flash head, the light beam changes in a top to bottom orientation, so the flash head’s rotation may need to be fine–tuned to suit the situation. The orientation of the flash tube, perpendicular to the light path, makes this inevitable. A more even pattern can be obtained from flash heads where the flash tube is aligned with the lens axis and are fitted with parabolic reflectors specifically designed for an even light pattern. Unfortunately, suitable units like the Norman and Quantum are just too bulky, and my bare-tube modified Vivitar flash a bit too fragile if I am constantly on the move.

Synthetic Fur: The synthetic fur used to cover the lyon's head has been a problem in the past. The fibers are highly reflective, and the density (fibers per square inch) allows light to ricochet around in the loft, make it "glow". I don't know of a practical way to cut back on this apparent super-saturation of color, but I'll keep trying.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Triggering Voltage

Photo #1
I have mentioned in many earlier posts that I frequently use Vivitar 283 and 285 flashes. It is a well-known fact that these flashes usually have very high triggering voltages. This means that when triggered by a hot shoe, a voltage spike, perhaps as high as 300 Volts, will try to fry the inner circuitry of your camera's hot shoe. Because of this, it is best to trigger these older flashes with an optical slave like a Wein Peanut, or use a Wein Safe Sync placed between the flash hot shoe and the flash.

For those who want to test the triggering voltage for themselves, you only need a standard voltmeter, set to 300 volts DC. You can test the flash as follows:

Photo #2
Turn on your volt meter and set it to 300 volts DC.

Turn the flash on.

Touch the red (positive) lead to the center contact in the middle of the flash hot shoe (Photo #2).

Place the black (negative) lead on the metal base of the hot shoe (Photo #1). In this photo, I measured the voltage on a Yong Nuo 560 flash. It is a very reasonably priced, fully manual flash that can accept an external battery pack and has a supplementary PC terminal. It has no provisions of non-TTL exposure automation. As you can see in Photo #1, the Yong Nuo has a triggering voltage 3.27 volts, well below the 6 volt ceiling for the Canon.

Photo #3
On Vivitar flashes, there is a tiny metal contact in the top surface of the flash foot. Check the arrow in Photo #3. If the negative lead of your volt meter won’t fit, you may need to use a paperclip to make proper contact.

The generally accepted guideline concerning Vivitar flashes is based on where they were made. In the case of the  Vivitar 283, assume that all Japanese editions have high triggering voltages, and are therefore unsafe. Conversely, non-Japanese models are considered safe, but check just the same. The same applies to the 285, although all releases of the 285 HV is supposed to be safe. Still, check the voltage. And cross your fingers.

Photo #4
When measuring flashes with plastic feet and a thumbscrew retainers, the contacts are larger and easy to see when the thumbscrew is fully retracted. This shoe (Photo #4) is of a Nikon SB-24. The arrow points to the metal contact.

I can’t (and won't) guarantee that this test will prove that your flash will be totally safe with your digital camera, but it is useful procedure to know. If you go to YouTube, you can find a number of film clips showing other users testing their flashes in exactly the same way.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ooooooh, Isn't This Amazing...

Photo #1
Hey, it's not every day you get to photograph "Belle" from the Disney On Ice Production of "Rockin' Ever After". I have to tell you, I've never fallen for a cartoon character as hard as I fell for her, with the possible exception of Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. But I digress.

Photo #2
To promote this Disney Extravaganza, actors from the show came to a local shopping center to meet and greet a crowd of young admirers, and I, ever obliging, went there to make a photo or two for the Journal. As usual, parents brought their kids to be photographed with these superstars of the preschool set, and the event handlers, dressed in black, kept the lines moving "in a most delightful way".
Photo #3
I know this is not the most creative shot I've ever made, but it occurred to me that I could have used this shot because nobody is recognizable. As shot, the image in the iPhone is too small, but had I a longer lens, it might have worked. I going to file this shot away as a possible solution when I can't get any names. Perhaps it would have worked if I had moved more to the left and had a longer lens. Oh well.
Photo #4
Most of the shots would not be submitted to the Journal, so I shot mostly for fun. I think of this as "Catch and Release" shooting, photography done "just for the fun of it." And since I don't use names in the blog, specific subjects have a reasonably safe level of web anonymity.
Photo #5
It's fun to watch how children react to cartoon characters who have come to life. And while the  fear of clowns is well documented, one has to stop and think about what goes through a child's mind when he or she encounters a gigantic, unblinking humanoid such as our friend Mickey. Without the benefit of facial expressions, there are no visual cues as to how such an encounter should be framed.
Photo #6
These young sisters don't seem to know just what to make of Mickey. I suspect that they knew somebody was inside the Mickey Head, and if they looked hard enough, they might just get a glimpse of who it was.
Photo #7
Photo #8
This young man gets a "high five" from the Big Guy himself. No shortage of self confidence here.
Photo #9
 "Belle", was easier for most children to respond to. This young lady brought her coloring book, and asked Belle to sign it.
Photo #10
I spent a little more than an hour photographing the event and ended up with a few shots suitable for publication. Working fast in close quarters is a skill worth developing. It's also entertaining, especially when you're surrounded by little fanboys, and little fangirls.

For Those Technically Inclined: 1/250 of a second, F 4.0, ISO 1600, flash white balance. Lighting was primarily from an overhead skylight, with a slight contribution from some incandescent accent lights. An on-camera SB-800 with its diffusion dome was mounted on each of my two working cameras. The power was set to 1/32, just enough to produce a catch light. TTL metering is problematic when the ISO goes above 800, so the tiny bit of light doesn't actually fill the shadows. It just gives a tiny bit of twinkle to the eyes.

Selecting the photo for submission became a game of inches. 
  • Photo #1: Who is that Pretty Girl with the child?
  • Photo #2: The photo says "Disney", but nothing "says" Disney.
  • Photo #3: Maybe next time. Not enough detail in the cell phone.
  • Photo #4: Couldn't find the child after the photo was taken.
  • Photo #5: Ditto.
  • Photo #6: Nice Mickey, but Little Girl #2 seems to be looking at his hands.
  • Photo #7: Good eye contact, but not enough Mickey showing.
  • Photo #8: Good Mickey, good child expression. Fairly close to following the Rule of Thirds. This is the photo I submitted.
  • Photo #9: Pretty Girl with child. Belle isn't as easily recognizable as Mickey.
  • Photo #10: Pretty Girl with Pretty Girl signing book. Again, Belle not as recognizable as Mickey.Also, Belle is too close to the right edge, the result of poor framing when the shot was made. 
Photo #11
As a post script, Photo #8 was returned with a request: Is there a shot that shows more Mickey? Since my submission was cropped, I re-submitted the image as it came from the camera. Photo #11 shows the smiling Disney handler looking directly at my young subject. While it decreased the size of my subject, his smile carried the day. The new iteration caught the eye of the Editor In Chief, who bumped it up to Page 2.

Good call, Susan!