Sunday, December 28, 2014

Phil'z Coffee

Photo #1

Philz Coffee had a soft opening for its newest location in San Mateo (Photo #1). It was scheduled to start at 11:00 am, and when I arrived at 11:10, the joint was already jumping. I was hoping for a crowd of coffee lovers, and wasn't disappointed.

Photo #2

There was laughing, drinking, and noshing on a variety of complimentary baked goods (Photo #2). Boy, that traditional Kouign Amann (I read the card) sure looked good, but the last thing any photographer needs is gooey frosting smeared all over his/her equipment. I gotta tell you, it wasn't easy saying "No, thank you", but sometimes you just gotta do it. But if a smile could tell a whole story, this one would write volumes!

Photo #3
Back to work. I noticed that I could bounce my flash off the wall behind me, so after adjusting the camera (1/160, F 2.8, ISO 800) I made a "hand selfie" to see how the light was behaving. I could tell that my current settings (1/160th of a second, F 2.8, ISO 800) that the ambient light was strong enough to come within one stop of proper exposure, as can see by the young man in the background behind the counter. The problem her is one of flash power: If I used wall bounced flash as my key light, it would add to the abundant ambient lighting, which would result in some blown highlights, as you can see on my hand. If I stopped my aperture down to F 4.0, the background would have gone darker, but I might not have had enough speedlight power to make the shot. I would also have lost some of the ceiling "twinkle" of the lights. Instead, I positioned myself so that the window light would illuminate Phil from the side, rather than from the front. Moving Phil farther from the window would have done the same thing. But this little tableau was playing out in front of me, so I decided to make the shot where they stood.

If you compare Photos #2 and #3, their eye level perspective allows for a good deal of the ceiling to show. I would have pursued this eye level perspective if I wanted to emphasize the architectural or decorative aspects, but instead I opted for an elevated perspective to include the barristas and the customers in the background. 

I made about six images of Phil, and selected the final image by a process of elimination. Remember that you really can't monopolize too much of your subject's time, especially when he's a businessman, working the room, chatting up the customers. If you're wondering about the sometimes unconventional framing, I'll explain that later.

Photo #4
I rejected Photo #4 because I failed to include is left hand in the image. After I previewed the shot, I suggested that Phil keep his hands a little closer together. By dumb luck, most of the "Philz" logo is visible on the cup. But the disconnected looks of the customers didn't help the image. I do like Phil's expression, as he appears to be singing "That's Amore", or a similar Dean Martin song. He has the look!

Photo #5
Photo #5 would be my ultimate choice. There are few (if any) distracting faces, and the one prominent bystander looks like she just got the punchline of the joke Phil just told. This grounded the image with a plausible story. I cropped the image to clean up the right third of the photo and managed to keep all of the important background. Unfortunately, Phil rotated the cup slightly, concealing the logo from the viewer. Again a reminder that I wasn't able to actually see the image at the moment it was taken.

Photo #6
I moved in a little closer for Photo #6, and as a consequence, brought his hands closer to the camera, making them appear much too large. Imagine a person whose hand spread was actually larger than his head. To top it off, the young lady was now checking her Smart Phone. Not a pretty sight.

Photo #7
For the last shot (Photo #7), I made it a point to get the logo on the cup clearly visible. I rejected the image because Phil is too low in the image. When I at tempted to crop the image, I lost all of the bystanders, and I still had a missing left hand. 

The big takeaway is a repetition of one of my rules to live by: A photograph is a gift. Sometimes you get what you want, and sometimes you don't. From my point of view, I got a pretty nice shot (Photo #5), one that everybody at the Journal seemed to like. So much so that the Editor made a special place for it on Page 6, one of the few times a photo like this appeared anywhere except the Community Section.

"Hail Mary": The "Hail Mary" position, camera held high overhead and pointed downward, is usually an act of desperation. Needless to say, you can''t look through the viewfinder, so you are only guessing where the camera is actually pointed. I'm sure some photographers get pretty good at this, but I just wasn't hitting the mark, as you can see in Photo #7. Had Phil been higher in the frame, the shot might have been saved, but alas, it was not to be. Photo #5 it was.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

200 Shots In One Hour

Photo #1
It's not what it sounds like. Thanksgiving at the Adult School is a festive event, a school-wide pot luck with food from around the world. Cuisines from every continent except Antarctica are represented. While for many it's a first encounter with a  roast turkey, it is still a bonding experience, a community builder in a classroom.

The idea behind today's shoot was to see how many images I could make in one hour. I was aiming for 200, which would mean that I was making a photo every 18 seconds. Once I accepted my own challenge, I had to decide what equipment to use.

Photo #2
The Camera: I needed a reliable setup that would be easy to use and would provide consistent results. Let's talk about he equipment first. The camera was a Nikon D40, (Photo #2), an entry-level DSLR introduced in 2006. To cut costs, Nikon removed in internal focusing motor and instead relied on the AF-S lens line which employed a focusing motor built into the lens itself. Second, the operations were heavily menu driven, eliminating the need for external button controls. Third, the Control Panel on the top plate of the camera body was eliminated, forcing the LCD panel on the back to perform playback and menu display functions. The mostly plastic 18-55 3.5 - 5.6 AF-S lens, the standard kit lens for entry level Nikons, is probably the least expensive zoom lens in the Nikon catalog. 

I chose this camera as an example of the sort of camera frequently found in the hands of the volunteer event photographers I often meet. The D40 and the subsequent iterations ( The D3xxx and D5xxx series) are similar in operation but offer more pixels, a real improvement. The basic kit lens is pretty much remains the same, and is perfectly adequate for this kind of shooting. 

The Flash: From here out, my selection of the bits becomes more diverse. The flash is a Vivitar 283 modified to use a flash tube that is parallel, not perpendicular to, the lens axis. When used with a parabolic reflector,  hot spots on the subject's face are reduced. My particular unit has a 1/4 CTO filter to improve flesh tones. The 283 is not a TTL flash, but instead utilizes a built-in forward-facing sensor to dollop out the proper exposure when used with a specific ISO/aperture combination. Because of the high triggering voltage typical of Vivitar flashes, a Wein Safe Sync was installed between the hot shoe and the flash to protect the camera from being "fried". A PC/Household cable was used to connect the two because the Vivitar has a Holly aluminum replacement foot. Because the Safe Sync does not have the Speedlight Present contact, the outfit could synchronize the flash at almost any speed. Nearly any flash can be used for this type of work, as long as the trigger voltage is low enough. My use of the bare tube modified Vivitar was a matter of convenience.

The Bracket: The final key component of this system is the flash bracket (QRS-35, now discontinued)  made by Custom Brackets. You can see that it raises the flash well above the lens axis, giving more pronounced shadows and softer highlights. If I was only making a few images, I wouldn't bother with the bracket and would simply hold the flash aloft with my free hand. But with my goal of 200 shots in one hour, working without a bracket would quickly get pretty tiring. Flash brackets have fallen from vogue in recent years, and can be found at camera shows at very reasonable prices. The best ones center the flash directly over the lens, and some allow the camera to rotate while maintaining the flash's location high over the camera.

The QB (Custom Brackets) are expensive, but they make a quality product. The are manufactured from machined aluminum with brass screws when needed, and are rugged. You can find brackets that are much cheaper, but the quality isn't any where near that of the QB. Stroboframe brackets are excellent, too.

Photo #3
 The D40 shares the "sync at any speed" quality with the Nikon D70s and the D50.  This allows me to sync at almost any speed, making it well adapted to shooting indoors and out. In Photo #3, the camera was set to 1/500, F 5.6, ISO 200. With my subject in the shadow of the buildings behind me, the flash was the sole source of subject illumination, so the existing light on my subject's face could be ignored.

Photo #4
Unfortunately for me, the freedom from thinking about synchronization speed lead to inattentiveness on my part. In Photo #4 I forgot to set the shutter speed my shorter "outdoor" setting after stepping out from an indoor venue. As you can see here, the background was a bit "hot". The exposure setting for this shot was 1/200 of a second with the aperture remaining at 5.6 and the ISO still at 200. Luckily, the subject is still well exposed, and the bright overexposed background could be ignored for this shot.

Photo #5
Backgrounds: Here's a quick rule when working under these "run and gun" situations: Keep your subjects as close the the background as you can. This will keep the exposure levels reasonable close to those on your subject. In Photo #5, the subjects are just a few feet from the background wall, and while not ideal, the results are acceptable. Watch out for a background that is angled from the lens axis. You'll see how the light falls off from camera right to camera left in this shot.

Photo #6
In Photo #6, you can see that the background is some distance away, and is much darker than Photo #6. Keep in mind that when working in a room as it was in these shots, you can't always move the subject closer to the background. Here, my sitting subject was close to the middle of the room. The exposure for these two shots was 1/125. No attempt was made to take the ambient light into account, mainly to prevent color contamination from the existing fluorescent. Sure, one could have filtered the flash to match the existing light but then I'd have to try to balance the two sources (ambient and flash) which would consume valuable time.

Photo #7
Glare: Glare from the background is almost inevitable. In this shot, you can see a sort of "glow" on the whiteboard background. If the camera is perpendicular to the background and the camera held perfectly level, the "hot spot" will appear in the exact center of the image. Any deviation from the perpendicular will alter the location of the hot spot. As a general rule of thumb, keep your subject centered in your viewfinder and your lens axis as close to perpendicular as possible.
Photo #8

You can see in Photo #7 that the hot spot is mostly covered by the subjects. The slight downward angle of the shot moved the glare spot 

In Photo #8, it is complete concealed by the subjects and the (slightly) high camera angle. 

In the end, I made nearly 200 photos, but by the time I culled out the clunkers, I wound up with 80 usable images, and I did it in one hour. And using direct flash allowed for fast recycle times and relatively long battery life. Truly, an easy shooting day!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Genius Dual Speedlight Mount

Photo #1 ©Tommy Huynh
Check this out: Tommy Huynh from San Antonio, Texas, is a genius. He created a simple and versatile dual flash mounting set-up (Photo #1) using readily available bits from your local camera store. Click here for a parts list a details on how you can assemble one of these things for yourself.

This adaptation has the versatility of axial rotation of the mounted flashes because each is mounted in its own ball head. This adds to the cost, but allows flexibility in the orientation of the flash sensor eye if used in the SU-4 or optically triggered remote mode. This would obviously become academic if a radio controller/remote system is employed.

Photo #2
My own solution (Photo #2), while cheaper, requires some small use of power tools to cut and drill the aluminum channel stock needed to construct the unit. In its current form, my unit works best with some form of line-of-sight communication between flash and camera. Its 90 degree orientation allows for two Nikon SB-800s to have their sensor eyes facing forward into an umbrella, allowing it to "catch" any light signals from the camera. It's also much cheaper. However, it doesn't allow for on-axis alignment with the umbrella, which may (or may not) be a problem. Remember that nearly all umbrella brackets angle the umbrella shaft upwards so that the flash beams and the center of the umbrella converge at the center. 

Depending on how  handy you are, either of these solutions can be made to work. I just thought that Mr. Huynh's solution was brilliant!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Open Wide! Sensor Cleaning At Home

Having a large family of Nikon D70 bodies includes insuring their overall health. I bought as many as I did because their purchase price dropped below what I would have pay to have one repaired. By having a fleet of these inexpensive (but capable) camera bodies means that when when one no longer functions, I can simply sell it for parts, and go to my equipment closet and draw out another.

There has been a lull in Journal assignments and a quick turn-around time for sensor cleaning at my preferred camera retailer, so I started to bring in my second string, then my first string, bodies in for cleaning. In all I had five bodies in my combined first and second tier bodies, but my third tier D70s needed some attention. 

I described a relatively simple system for checking your on DSLR's sensor for dust spots in this post. For my D70 and D70s bodies, I decided to check them with my Sensor Scope and found that nearly all had some dust on their sensors. At $50.00 per body, I was looking at a sizable cleaning bill if I were to clean  every camera body. Faced with this potentially large expense, I decided to explore cleaning the sensors myself.
For many years, manufacturers discouraged individuals from cleaning their own sensors. However, if you checked You Tube, you could find clips, submitted by Japanese photographers, showing hobbyists cleaning their own sensors using readily available sensor cleaning kits. I was a little hesitant to do this myself, being content to use my Sensor Scope to look for dust, and delegating the cleaning task to a professional when enough dust was found. But is seems that the new breed of Interchangeable Lens Compact (ILC) cameras has prompted dealers to encourage the do-it-yourself approach, perhaps because the sensor was more easily seen and accessed when no mirror was present, or because these cameras are more likely to be used by amateurs who wouldn't pay for a professional service anyway. In fact, the cleaning supplies were prominently displayed by the display case reserved for ILC cameras and accessories. I spoke briefly with the sales person, and determined that for my Nikon SLRs with APS sensors, I would need to purchase the proper sized sensor swabs and some cleaning solution. I walked out with a bottle of Eclipse Optic Cleaning Fluid and a box of 12 #2 sized Sensor Swabs from Photographic Solutions.   The swabs come in three sizes: Size #1 is for micro four-thirds, #2 is for APS sized sensors, and #3 is for full fame cameras. One caveat from their website: Only ECLIPSE Optic Cleaning Fluid may be used to clean traditional CCD, CMOS and Tin Oxide sensors. Now I'm the kind of guy who reads the instructions before starting an unfamiliar project, so I'll simply say that if your camera is NOT listed on this chart, you shouldn't use this method of cleaning. You can see a detailed video on how to clean the sensor. Just click here to see exactly how it's done.

On final note: The instructions clearly state that you may need as many as four swabs to get your sensor clean (the swabs are used only once - one left stroke and one right stroke). I would still suggest that you get a Sensor Scope (or a similar product) and use it to check your sensor after each swabbing. And don't forget that a blower like the Giotto Rocket Blower, may be all you need to to blow away the loose dust. The blower, besides having a cool "rocket" shape, has an internal filtration system to prevent it from sucking in airborne particles and blowing them onto your sensor, in important feature. You might just find out that a little "whoosh" from your Rocket is all you need...for now.