Sunday, June 1, 2014

Carnaval 2014

The approach of Carnaval 2014 was a pleasant surprise. There had been doubts that funding would be available to finance this iconic San Francisco experience. A little bit of the Caribbean, Latin American, and Chicano all mixed together with music, dance, and universal good times for a bright, shiny day in May. So once again, I went into the San Francisco's Mission District to photograph the participants, all expecting to be photographed. Many, it seemed, were truly at ease in the uninhibited personas they chose for themselves.

In The Bag: I went with two Nikon D70 bodies and my three must have lenses: A wide angel 12-24 F4.0 Tokina (slower, heavier, but sharper than my 10-24 Tamron), a 28-70 F2.8 Tamron, and my 70-300 Nikkor. I carried only one flash, a non-automatic Yong Nuo 560. I chose it over my usual SB-800 because it has one special feature: Its simplified triggering electronics allow it to synchronize at all shutter speeds, and it will work on Canon bodies too. When set to 1/4 power, it will discharge completely at1/1000 of a second when used with a Nikon D70. This is pretty much the practical performance ceiling because a shorter shutter speed or a more powerful flash setting will result in clipping (the loss of flash power at the back end of the discharge curve. Trust me). I decided to not carry a monopod for extended off-camera lighting. Instead, I attached the Yong Nuo to the camera with a Nikon SC-17 partially disabled for full synchronization (see this earlier post) and would hand hold the flash. 

Photographing In The Shadows: One can get some dramatic images by placing your subject completely in shadow and allowing the background to be fully lit by direct sunlight. Here, your flash provides the only effective key light on your foreground subject. If no fill is added, the shadows will be dark and dramatic. The edge on the shadow will be fairly sharp, but this really can't be helped, considering the limitations of the equipment and the amount of flash energy available for the shot.
Photo #1
In the photo (Photo #1), I held the light away from the camera and aligned with the young lady's nose. And while the light won't win any awards, her face is gently rendered, considering that this is hard, direct light source. It's all in the angle of approach, and the facial essentials, the eyes and the smile, are well rendered. More on this later.

With a subject like this Aztec headdress (Photo #2), the vivid colors alone could carry the image. Again, had I the luxury of better lighting, this image could have really hummed, but for a shot made on the fly with no preparation time, the results are pleasing, and potentially publishable.
Photo #2
Working up close and at eye level also made my arms "longer" and better able to properly align the light  with my subject's nose. The original shot was about one full stop over-exposed, probably because my camera was set the properly expose at a distance of about seven feet, the the shot made much closer than that. RAW processing brought the image into line, and some judicious dodging and burning brought some "pop" back to the image.

Backlit Subjects:"Backlit Photographs" are those where the main light source is coming from behind the subject. Assuming that your a photographing outdoors, the light will "halo" your subject, usually resulting in some overexposed highlights. When photographing without supplementary lighting (flash or reflector), the subject and the background receive the exact same amount of light, usually from the blue sky above, which tends to run on the cool side. If you need to maintain detail in the highlights, you'll need to adjust your exposure downward, underexposing both your subject and the background. The addition of a flash will only effect your foreground subject, leaving the background "in the dark" (Photo #3).
Photo #3
In the inset on the left you can see the positive effects of the sun backlighting my foreground subjects. The exposure kept the details in the pineapple fronds, while the flash gave me facial details. In the inset to the left, you can see that all of the essential detail was maintained.

One important caveat: If you try to lighten the background to increasing your exposure time, you will also lighten your subject by the same amount. The additional light provided by your flash will potentially overexpose your image.

Compositional elements aside, I rather like the photo, primarily for the abundance of yellow and green. I find the children in the foreground a little distracting, but you have to laugh at the juxtaposition of the inflatable bananas and the Carmen Miranda headpiece. Those bananas, by the way, were used by the "Banana Drill Team", another concept you have to laugh at. But humor is a big part of Carnaval, and you have to chuckle when you find it hidden in plain sight.

Photo #4
I included this backlit shot (Photo #4) for comparison purposes. The placement of the flash does make a difference in how the face is rendered, and it's pretty obvious once you know what to look for.
This shot was made from a low camera angle, with the flash held as high above as my arms would allow. If you compare the nose shadows in the left and right samples in Photo #5, you can see that there are fewer highlights (bright spots) on the left sample than on the right. This is because I was able to get my flash slightly above the nose on the left shot, but not on the right. This is an important difference, and worth remembering when you use you flash outdoors. I'm sure that if my flash was mounted on-camera, the results would have been much worse.
Photo #5
Photo #6
Flash Fill For Side Lighting. In all of the previous examples, the flash provided all of the light to illuminate the subject. While not the case here, the ambient light level may contribute to the overall exposure. But when photographing subjects with a strong amount of side lighting, you may want to consider the effects the sun will have on the final photography. You can see the amount of side lighting effects the dancers in different ways (Photo #6). The two from the left have are lit from the side, while the two on the right the sun has little effect. For the rightmost pair the fill lighting renders them as "normally" exposed, while those on the left show some overexposure where the sunlight adds to the flash fill. In the end, the left were overexposed by the additional sunlight, while the rightmost pair are enjoying a colorful accent light.

If possible, consider how much you want the side lighting to contribute to the shot, and how much fill you'll want to add. Full-on flash fill works for the two on the right, but adds a bit too much light to the dances on the left. This is not to say that you can always predict exactly how such images will finally turn out, but anticipating the possible consequences is one half of the battle.

Photo #7
Flash Fill For Front Lighting. You can tell by the length and direction of the shadows (Photo #7)  that this pair of dancers is lit from the front, and fairly early in the morning. To properly expose a shot like this, you must balance the sun's exposure with you flash output. When confronting a front lit subject, a quick rule of thumb is to underexpose the ambient by 1/2 stop, and adjust your flash to provide 1/2 of the output you would normally need to expose your subject. Now your highlights will get full exposure (1/2 from the flash and 1/2 from the sun), and the shadows will 1/2 of the proper exposure value, or a tad more if photographing on a lighter concrete surface as opposed to darker asphalt. These are not hard and fast rules, but from a mathematical point of view, illustrate the cumulative nature of mixing artificial and natural light.

Photo #8
High Noon Fill. At noon, the sun will be in it highest possible position. I applied the 1/2 + 1/2 rule to this shot (Photo #8). You can clearly see that this technique gives a proper amount of exposure contrast to the highlight and shadow areas. Since I knew my flash would be acting as a fill, I mounted it on the camera's hotshot to get it closer to the lens' axis. This gave me some great catchlights in my subject's eyes, another plus. Don't get me wrong. Photographing in direct sunlight at high noon is the pits, and so long as the sun is provides the main light source, you'll get less than spectacular results. But when you have to make a photo under these circumstances, you can at least deliver a properly exposed image with lots of shadow detail. Just don't overexpose the highlights.

Now for the record I default to exposure settings that tend to underexpose my images, simply because I usually try to include some portion of the sky as a background and I want it rendered somewhat darker than normal. My go-to lens is usually a wide angle, which allows me to photograph at shorter distances, allowing the output from my underpowered flash to have a greater impact on the shadow exposure.

I have said in earlier posts that Carnaval offers photographers a chance to experiment with composition, lighting, and a variety of other people photography skills. Just remember to smile a lot, and enjoy both the joy and humor that are all around if you just keep your eyes, and ears, wide open.