Sunday, July 20, 2014


Every July, our school sponsors a soccer tournament for the students.The United States is just beginning to understand how REALLY popular soccer is on Planet Earth. I have been photographing the winning teams for several years now, and have pretty much settled into a "sun behind your back, show me your medals" mode that delivers satisfactory results every time. Truth be known, it's not a great time to get creative. You smile, make the shot, and move on. In this case, the player at the far left dropped in at the last minute, setting the composition a little off kilter.

Photo #2: B&H Photo
Lighting was pretty straight forward. I used the same two Quantum X heads powered by a Norman 200B Battery Packs as I do when making the big group shot at graduation. Because the soccer teams are much smaller, one frontal light is sufficient, which allows me to use the second as an accent light from behind. I use a pair of Eilenchrome Skyport radio flash triggers, one for each head. I install a Wein Safe Sync SSH into the "H" receptor in the flash head to protect the Eilenchrome of the high trigger voltages associated with the Normans. Notice that the Safe Sync can be used with an "H" connector (sometimes called an AC connector because it looks like an appliance cord) or a PC connector, which you can see in Photo #2.

Photo #3
Redundant Flash Triggering. When I use two Norman/Quantum units together, I install a standard optical slave in the H connection port and a PC to Microphone cable between the PC port of the Safe-Sync and the Eilenchrome. You can see the setup here (Photo #3). The orange optical slave (discontinued Normans) is seen in the H connector. The Skyport is hanging from its own strap which takes the strain off of the PC/Microphone cable. With two identically equipped heads, they can be triggered by the Skyport transmitter on my camera's hotshoe, or by another flash. You have to be careful, because ANY flash from any camera will set them off, so when working indoors with other photographers, this may not be a good idea. But when working alone, it gives me a additional measure of reliability. As you can see, I'm using an unmodified reflector. Given the nature of the photo, it's better to not get too creative. Also, a slight breeze could knock the light stand over, potentially ruining your day.

Photo #4
In this not-so-great photo(Photo #4), you can see the second accent light facing directly into the camera. You can get an idea of where the edge of the light falls. That grey box at the base of the stand is the Norman B200 battery pack secured to the stand by a Norman quick release bracket. In most cases, this is all the ballast I really need.

When setting up the shot, I decided what portion of the sky I wanted as a background. There obviously wasn't much to choose from, and by the time I actually photographed the teams, most of the clouds had blown elsewhere. Once I established my shooting position, I place my key light high and behind me. Next, I walked away from the key light towards the background and placed the accent light about 12 feet from where the team would be posing , and rotated the head to face forward. The light was set at a height of about five feet off the ground. Finally, I turned to face the key light, and walked to the mid point between my two strobes, and placed a penny on the ground. This marked the point where I would place my tallest player, since I would need his height to shield the accent light.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Every photo has one. I wished I had thought to add a full Color Temperature Orange (CTO) to the accent light. That would have given the illusion of the setting sun in the background. But even as it stands, most viewers had assumed it was natural sunlight, and really liked the effect.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

La Quinceanera 2014 Part 2

It was now party time, which gives a bit more opportunity to shoot in a more free-flowing style. From this point forward, the shots were more about the party experience.

Ceiling Bounce On The Dance Floor: This shot was done using a single, shoe mounted speedlight aimed at the ceiling behind me. I chose a low angle to include the beamed ceiling and an unusual backdrop for the dancers.The shutter was "dragged" to allow for a proper exposure of the ceiling "background". As is often the case, I'm working very close to the subjects and using a wide angle lens, so some distractions in the background are to be expected. I liked the fact that the lighting fixtures gave some visual highlights to the background, allowing the viewer to overlook the overall underexposure of the light colored ceiling.

I was starting to discover the advantages of using a SD-8a supplementary battery pack with my on-camera flash. With drastically reduced recycle times, fewer shots were missed waiting for the speedlights to fully recharge.

Light On A Stick Outdoors: The dance that my subjects had rehearsed was moved to an outside patio to give the dances more freedom of movement. I kept my two tandem mounted SB-900s ready to go, so it was a simple matter to convert my shoe mounted flash to serve to a SU-4 controller, which meant that I couldn't use iTTL to help in the lighting. Instead, Cissie made sure the lights were 10 feet (more or less) away from the main subject. This became something of an issue because I had to maintain a clear Line of Sight between the camera mounted Commander speedlight and the two speedlights on the pole, whose sensor eyes had been aimed towards the ground. This way, if I positioned the lights above (or nearly above) my head, I'd get reliable flashes. This didn't always work, since the constraints of Sissy's position made more dramatic angled lighting problematic. Next time, it's Pocket Wizards all the way! 

Photo #2: 1/30, F 6.3, ISO 400
In Photo #2, you can see that that the flashes provided all of the useful illumination for the photo. You can see that the shadows on the walls of the clubhouse are very dark. Gretchen and her father appear to have been "frozen" by the flash illumination, in spite of the relatively long exposure time. The incandescent lighting from inside the clubhouse adds little to the photo.

Photo #3: 1/10, 6.3, ISO 400
Photo 3a: 1/10, 6.3, ISO 400
I decided to lengthen the exposure time to 1/10 of a second to get some meaningful motion blur in the photo, which I hoped would add some visual excitement (Photo #3). A welcomed side effect was the overall brightening of the surroundings. But the dragging of the shutter can be an iffy thing if you forget to set your camera to Rear Curtain Synchronization, since the subjects tend to float through their own phantom blur. In Photo 3a, you can see that I achieved mixed results. The arms appear to be moving, but the (camera) right edge of Gretchen's face shows more blur than I would have wanted.

Shortly after the formal dancing, Gretchen and her friends joined the party, and after dinner, the tables were moved back and the dance floor made ready for a less formal, more "kid friendly" celebration. Initially, the house lights were left on, so I used them as a backdrop for some candids, (Photo #4) just as I had done earlier.  Focusing was not an issue, as there was plenty of light for the camera's auto focusing to function properly. You can't help but notice how the "shoes" in the foreground were really distorted by the 11mm setting my my Tokina lens. But it couldn't be helped, since I had a solid wall of guests immediately to my back.
Photo #4: 1/125, F 6.3, ISO 1600
Pretty soon it was the adult's turn to dance, and the room lights were turned off. This posed a bit of a problem, as the lowered ambient light level required a bit more ISO, and intensified the effect of the wall sconces on the subsequent images. This last shot (Photo #5) now has a very different feel to it, and the effects of the relatively long exposure times gave me a bit more blur than I would have liked. You just play the shot where it lands.
Photo #5: 1/20, F 6.3, ISO 1600
Point And Shoot, 2014: To look at this last photo, you'd think that the room was dimly lit, and that there should have been enough light to focus. Not the case! The room was quite dark, actually, and those ultra bright lights in the back were accent lights mounted on the wall. This turned out to be a problem, since no matter which way I turned, I was facing one or more of these lights, making it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve focus lock.

The solution came from and old technique I used when film was the medium of choice. Since a practical autofocus would not be invented until 1981 with the introduction of the Pentax ME-F (reference), every manufacturer made efforts to make manual focus as easy as possible. In those days, all lenses had an easy-to-read distance scale, calibrated in feet and meters, visible from the top of the camera.  When shooting in near darkness, I would set the lens to seven feet,(a distance I could easily (gu)estimate), adjust the aperture for an appropriate flash exposure, and position myself at that distance from my subject. I would simply wait until something interesting was about to happen, and when it did, I simply raised the camera to my eye and made the exposure.
My workaround was to program the AE-L AF-L button to lock both the Auto Exposure and the Auto Focus. The external button can be programmed, I while AE/AF Lock is shown in the illustration, I normally set it to AF lock only, since I normally set my exposure manually.

When I find myself in a really dark location, I will find something bright (a candle on a table, perhaps) and position myself five feet from it. Next, I'll partially depress the shutter release to let the autofocus lock onto the object. Finally, I'll depress the AE-L/AF-L button with my thumb, and then look for something I want to photograph. When I do, I'll position myself five feet away, depress the AE-L/AF-L button, and shoot. By holding the button down, the focus remains at five feet, giving me a reasonably well focused image. However, if you forget to depress the AE-L/AF-l button, you'll have to find another well-lit object five fee away, and start all over.

The whole Quinceanera experience was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed having the chance to adapt some old techniques to new environments. My single small regret is not setting the synchronization for "Rear Curtain", but that's an exercise for another day.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

La Quinceanera 2014 Part 1

I was asked if I could photograph a Quinceanera by a guest at Brad and Rene's wedding. Having never done a Quinceanera before, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to practice shooting in a new (for me) "social environment". As I had hoped, it gave me a chance to practice some shooting techniques I don't get to use very often.

The Practice Session: The assignment was broken into three parts: the Practice Session, the Full Length Formal Portrait Session, and the Quinceanera itself. Photographing the practice gave me a chance to meet my "Q-Girl", her escorts, and her attendants. After some routine photos of young men and women learning the customary dance steps from the official event choreographer, there was some time for some fun shots. I recalled that Phillipe Hallsman created a series of "Jump Photos" where he made photos of people actually jumping in front of his camera. Mr. Hallsman contended that a person's true personality could be seen at the height of their jump, revealing his subject's unguarded personality.

What started as a simple exercise turned into a 45 minute giggle-fest where everybody wanted to be photographed with different people in the party. I certainly managed to break the ice, and I later leaned that the "jump session" was the subject of much discussion that evening, all complimentary.

Photo #1
This particular shot (Photo #1) featured Gretchen (center) flanked by her two Quinceanera coaches. Perhaps they just were happy that the day's practice session was finally over. Lighting required two SB-800 speedlights, mounted on lightstands, positioned behind the subjects and aimed forward in a cross-light setup. You can see a bit of flare from the light located at camera right, a sign that the cardboard scrim I attached to the flash didn't work as well as I had hoped. The camera left lightstand was actually cloned out of the final image. The subjects were front lit with a Lastolite EZBox held by my assistant Cissie, who was standing in front of me, just out of the left side of the frame. Unlike the Zumbrella, there is no "back splatter" of light when using the EZBox, and subsequently no contrast reducing flare from within the lens.

Photo #2
The Full Length Portrait. Phase 2 consisted of the formal full-length portrait. Gretchen wanted a on outdoor setting, and while there were some suggestions of more exotic locations, I decided that a good compromise would be the San Mateo Central Park gazebo, which was just outside of the headquarters of the San Mateo Arboretum Society. The gazebo was surrounded by well-tended flowers in full bloom, and can be seen in the background (Photo #2). Looking back on this image, there are some minor alignment problems that could have been solved by using a tripod and carefully adjusting the framing. In cases like this, it would have been useful if I had centered the camera on the framework of the Gazebo and moved Gretchen withing the composition, but I purposely didn't bring one because it might have been in someone's way. 

Learn Something New: For this outdoor portrait  I was using two Nikon SB-900s mounted in a Lastolite EZBox II Flash Bracket triggered by two Pocket Wizard Flex units. Nikon SD-8a supplementary battery packs were added to cut recycling time. I used a shoot-through umbrella as a light modifier which Cissie held aloft on a paint pole. I put two ceiling-pointing speedlights on the floor of the gazebo to light the interior. I discovered that if the Pocket Wizards are configured to fire in the manual (not iTTL) mode, the single flash impulse would properly trigger the two optically slaved Gazebo lights. This required a good bit of adjustment prior to Gretchen's arrival, but made for a less complicated lighting solution.

The Main Event: Photographing the Quinceanera itself was very much like a wedding. You'll be required to apply a variety of exposure techniques under a variety of circumstances.

Photo #3
For the outdoor shots, I decided to go with 2 SB-900s set to 1/2 power and triggered optically (SB-4 mode) using a camera mounted, fully manual LumoPro 180. My reasoning was that if I was confronted with bright, direct sunlight, I could easily move the flash to my Nikon A or Sony R1 and synchronize my shots at 1/500 of a second or higher, effectively doubling the relative output of my SB-900s. I relied on Cissie to maintain a distance of 10' from the flashes to the subject. No light modifier was used because I needed all of the lighting power I could muster for shooting in bright sunlight. The exposure setting for this shot, taken in the shade of an awning, was 1/250 at F11 (Photo #3). Incidentally, I could have easily cropped the right side glare, but left the image  in its original aspect ratio so I'd have some space to crop if I needed to.

Photo #4
 The day was cloudy bright, as you can see by the soft-edged shadow beneath the limo (Photo #4). In this case, the twin speedlights provided the necessary shaping of my subject's faces. Exposure was 1/160 of a second at F10, ISO 200. I wish I had thought to radio-sync a speedlight or two for a shot made inside of the limo, but just there wasn't any time. 
Photo #5
Indoor Available Light: For the ceremony itself, available light would be the desired mode of operation. I spoke with the Quinceanera Concierge about using flash. While she said that I was free to use flash EXCEPT during prayer, so Iremoved the flashes from my cameras, opened the apertures, and raised the ISO settings. Digital noise was a real problem at the high ISOs, but I managed to get some acceptable images when the available lighting was relatively even, like this one (Photo #5).

Photo #6
Indoor Running And Gunning: R and G means just that: Maximum mobility coupled with high speed shooting. As soon as the ceremony was over, I went to the back of the church to make this flash photo (Photo #6). I set one camera aside just for this purpose. And even with a direct, camera mounted flash, I kept a fairly high ISO setting so the ambient lighting at the front of the church would render enough detail to be recognizable. I am ashamed to admit that I used a shoe-mounted flash because I own several flash brackets that would have brought the light higher above the lens axis.

After some obligatory formals, it's off the the next venue. Since we're leaving the church, the approach will be more of a combination of event and journalistic photography, with difference approaches for each new situation, allow me unrestricted use of my speedlights. More to follow.