Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ballroom Competition

Photo #1
The San Francisco Open Dancesport Championship is an annual event here in San Mateo. Dancers from all over the world come to compete in a variety of dance styles, with colorful gowns and precision footwork the order of the day. A wide range of competition categories allow for competitors as young as nine and ten to compete against dancers of their own ages.

Establishing context can be tricky. In the 2014 event, a projected "sf Open" logo was projected on the back wall, so I positioned myself to include it. This was a good move, because the context was easily established. Unfortunately, the dancers would have to be relatively close to my shooting position if they were to be recognizable (Photos #1) and to keep the dancers presented in full length.

Photo #2
On some shots, I waited until the dancers moved closer to me.This gave me more detail in the dancer's faces, but required that I crop the dancer's legs for the lower edge of the frame. Here, we can clearly see the dancers' faces, but not their legs (Photo #2).

Photo #3
In this shot (Photo #3), I opted for a tighter composition, forgoing the background projection for clearer facial expressions. And while I lost the dancer's legs, I was able to show how the dancers must project an image of effortless joy. Another byproduct of the tight composition allows the viewer to see the competitor number, along with the "SF Open" notation below it.

Photo #4
Exposure: Lighting brings its own set of problems. Competitions like this one must be well lit for the benefit of the viewing (paying) audience. Ceiling-mounted spotlights were used, which tend to be very close to the accepted 3200 degree color temperature associated with the Incandescent white balance preset. Unfortunately, the placement of the lights themselves created hotspots at the center of the dance floor (Photo #4). In this shot, can see that two dancers are a little "hot" (overexposed). My exposure was set manually (1/200, 4.5, ISO 3200). Had I gone with Aperture Priority and applied in-camera exposure compensation (either plus or minus) I might have brought the exposure into a more usable range, but this could have become an exercise in adjustment/re-adjustment if the level of the background illumination had changed. Staying in the manual mode allows me to concentrate on framing and timing. But in spite of your best efforts, there will be some clunkers (Photo #5). So shoot, shoot, shoot! Raw to the Rescue!

Photo #5
Identifying The Competitors. Since I would need to accurately identify the competitors in my photo captions, I took advantage of the fact that every male dancer had a competitor number pinned to his back. Now the photos were made late on a Friday evening, so the soonest they could be published would be Monday. This gave me some time to view the images before the 4:00 pm Sunday submission deadline. So whenever I made a photo that I thought might make the "cut", I immediately made a second photo of the number itself (Photo #6). I chose my best images on Sunday morning and brought them to one of the officials who helped me match the numbers to the dancer's names.

Photo #6
Photographing dance competitions can be an iffy thing. Officials tend to be ambivalent to camera phones, confident that the results would not pose a serious threat to the professional photographers assigned to cover the event. But if you are "professionally equipped", you probably will be questioned. I would never photograph this kind of event unless I was working under the auspices of the Journal.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Flash That Isn't There

Photo #1

I can be overly enthusiastic about speedlights. I depend on them to lighten up the shadows, so much so that I've forgotten that I had a life without these handy artificial light sources. Admittedly, my early attempts to apply flash were hit and miss, since I really couldn't predict how the flash would affect the overall exposure. But with the advent of digital photography in my life, the instant feedback allowed me to be more creative, providing I had the time.

Photo #2
This particular assignment was a case in point. Long before I made this Photo #1, I was in front of the stage, trying to include some meaningful background details. The lighting was provided by spotlights mounted in a ceiling track (Photo #2). The shadows on the wall are very telling. You can see that there isn't much detail in them, and that their edges are annoyingly sharp.
I normally wouldn't use flash while somebody is speaking, or getting ready to. In this case, our speaker had just arrived at the podium, so I made several shots using the existing light. The exposure settings were 1/125 of a second at F3.2 with an ISO setting of 3200. The white balance setting was Incandescent.

I wasn't happy with what I was getting, so I decided to wait for the standing ovation that I knew was coming. I credit David Ziser for this pearl of wisdom: Successful people photography is not only about the action, but also about the reaction. Including the audience would bring more depth to the photo and would move the center of interest into the foreground. I then moved to a position where the audience would become an integral part of the composition. I mounted an SB-800 on the camera and installed the tungsten gel. With both light sources (flash and ambient) reasonable matched, I felt I would get some decent fill when bounced from the light colored ceiling. And because of the high ISO setting, it didn't take much flash power to provide the overall fill. 

When the speech was over, the audience came to its feet, allowing me to make six photos in about a minute. I tried to be selective about when I made my exposures, but sometimes you can be concentrating on one thing while overlooking another. I acknowledge the hotspot created by the flash, but that couldn't be helped.

Photo #3
You can see that another photographer, having just realized what I was doing, rushed over take a position next to me (Photo #3). A pretty major photobomb, if you ask me. And from another photographer to boot. If you look closely at Photo #1, you can see him photographing from in front of the stage. Oh well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Photo #4
I kept shooting, ignoring my new best friend, knowing that he could easily be cropped out (Photo #4). Granted, I could have moved a bit to the right to get him closet to  the edge of the image, but was too busy watching what was going on. The people in the prime front tables were packed pretty tightly, so I'm sure that no matter what I did, somebody would be partially cropped out. I also wish the stairs weren't so prominent, but that couldn't be avoided. It apparently bother the editor, since both the lower and upper third of the image were cropped out.

I'm sill a little surprised about how much the additional flash improved the image. It complimented the existing spotlight illumination which provided some separation for the audience while providing a pleasing edge light on our speaker.

And it was all done using iTTL, which makes it even more wonderful.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Flash Overfill

The Rotary Club of Foster City presented the Adult School with a check for $1,500, a sizable gift considering the state of educational funding in California. Photos like this serve two purposes: in-house publications and external publicity.

For a lark, I decided to see how a camera like the Nikon Coolpix A would work as a "run and gun" camera for quick publicity shots as this. I decided to add a Nikon SB-900 speedlight with a Lumiquest 80/20 with the silver reflector in place. This effectively place my light source further from the lens axis, an important consideration when shooting indoors with the constant threat of "red eye".

I read recently that back in the 70's, some photographers had come up with a basic formula for using flash to fill in the subject's shadows. Put simply, it was suggested that you cut you "ambient" (metered, if you prefer) exposure by 1/2 of a stop, and set your flash to underexpose by 1/2 of a stop. Huh? 

Followers of Joe McNally once made a reference to a photo requiring a 2/3 under exposure in Aperture Priority mode, and 2/3 over exposure added to the speedlight exposure. Certainly McNally's advice is to be trusted. But here's the catch. The underexposures was accomplished using a plus or minus adjustment with the Exposure Compensation dial, which is global. This means that the ambient exposure and the speedlight exposure are reduced equally, and left uncorrected, will yield an image that is underexposed. The plus 2/3 stops on the speedlight is there to bring the flash lit portion of the image to "normal", while allowing the ambient to underexpose. Remember: exposure compensation affects both the ambient exposure value and the flash exposure value when using TTL and aperture priority together. This also presumes that the flash will be the primary light source on your subject.

Fill with flash is a different story. Here, the light used to restore detail in the shadows will also affect those areas receiving enough ambient light to make a proper exposure. In this photo of the wall outside of my office we can see, on the left, an image made without flash fill. On the right is the same exposure with the addition of the SB-900 set to 1/8 power based on a 9' flash to subject distance. It clearly returned detail to the shadow, but also noticeably lightened up the sunlit areas.
Another issue was the light source. As I mentioned, I used an SB-900 with a Lumiquest 80/20 and the silver reflector insert. This gave a somewhat harder light, but it was all I had. The 80/20 raises the light off axis, which provides some modeling. Unfortunately, it is still nearly on-axis lighting, so hot spots on the tips of everyone's nose inevitably result. I managed to improve the situation by using the clone tool in the darken mode. 

If you look back at the sample image, can see that there is a definite hot spot in the middle, something that normally wouldn't be noticed when photographing an actual person. But the nasal hot spots will still be there.

In this trial shot, you can see that the run and gun combination produce a reproducible photo with very little effort. Since both the flash and the ambient exposures were 1/2 of what they should have been, the filled shadows weren't too hot. A usable image, but certainly nothing worth adding to my portfolio.
One thing that you'll immediately notice is the "photo grey" sunglasses have magically transformed into dark, colorless disks. This is a pretty common occurrence, and was sure it would happen today. To eliminate this, I keep a pair of glasses frames without the lenses for those situations when I am photographing the boss in bright sunlight. This time I actually remembered to bring them. 

From this enlargement from the lead shot, you can clearly see the boss's eyes are clearly visible and suspiciously free from glare. Of course, he claims he couldn't see a thing. But obviously, it works! David Hobby likes to tell the story of a Chinese wedding photographer who carries a box containing 40 such pairs of lensless glasses whenever he shoots. When doing a group, he tells everybody to pocket their own glasses and chose a pair of frames from the box. As David said, that's a line that you want to be in the FRONT of!

When it came time to actually make the shot, the selected location put the sun at their backs and their faces lit only by the open sky. No longer a fill, the flash was now the key light, which I simply doubled the flash output to 1/4 power to give me a proper facial exposure. Granted, the lighting is a little flat, being so close to the axis, but the exposure was about where I expected it to be. It certainly isn't gorgeous softbox lighting, but as I said, it would do for a simple "run and gun" photograph.
Here's the shot once again. Granted, it doesn't have the smooth lighting that I get from my Zumbrella shoot-through umbrellas, or from a small softbox. But the rig was simple to carry and somewhat less clumsy, and more efficient, than my old favorite, the Gary Fong Cloud  Dome. But as I said, for running and gunning, it will do in a pinch.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Mean Lighting

I was experimenting with some old techniques (ceiling bounce) and a new technique (on-axis fill) on an assignment for the Journal, I captured this unusual photo of one of the speakers. I don't know if the scowl was meant for me, but I wasn't the first photographer to start using direct flash, just the most persistent. Granted, I made a total of 9 photos, this being the last one. When I chimped this shot, I suspect I got nervous, since he was state senator, after all.

The experiment involved using both an on-camera flash, bounced from the ceiling, and a remote second flash set to 1/32 power, held close to the lens axis. The fill effect was barely visible, but two tiny catchlights, one in each eye, add to the sinister look.
This second shot of another state senator using the same technique reveals the tiny catchlight in the pupil of the, along with the larger one created from the ceiling bounce. The tiny drop of light lightened up the shadows, but also brightened up the teeth, something I hadn't planned on. Check the enlarged cropped portion of the second shot.

This image was right out of camera, and since it was not destined for publication, I cloned out the extra catchlights on the classes.

One sad byproduct of the arrangement came from the manner with which I triggered the on-axis fill. I relied on the SU-4 optical triggering on the SB-800, but as a consequence, the remote speedlight went off whenever anybody's flash went off, so the unit was constantly popping. Next time, I'll add a Calumet Radio Trigger for better control over my remote. The Calumet allows manual control of the off-camera remote speedlight (set to manual output, by the way) while allowing passthrough control of a iTTL controlled speedlight mounted in the hotshoe of the transmitter.
Shooting angle influences the size of the primary catchlight. This shot, taken at a very low angle, allows a large portion of the ceiling to reflect in my subject's eyes, hence the large catchlights. The little catchlights are still there, and could be cloned out.

The addition of a low power, on-axis fill flash works well in some circumstances. It can produce an interesting look if there is not reflection from the key light, as was the case in the top photo. Of course, those second catchlights will be more noticeable the closer you get. Unfortunately, I can be pretty compulsive about these white micro-dots. But I know that if and when one of these photos were to make it to newsprint, that second set of catchlights will surely get lost in the ink dots.