Sunday, January 25, 2015

Picket Fences-Shooting Environmental Group Photos
Maybe I was the one who started using the term "picket fence" to describe a posed shot where everybody stood shoulder to shoulder, looked directly into the camera, and gave their best smile. It's something that every photographer has to do at one time or another. The groups are never random: There will always be something that brought the group together in the first place. Usually it will be a reward recipient, the presenter, and event sponsor, the celebrity host, and any additional supernumeraries.

Making a picket fence is about lighting and directing your subjects to insure that everybody is recognizable, and making sure that the final photo will reproduce well. Aside from the lighting, I try to spend some time finding either a foreground, or a background, that can help the photo to work. Sometimes it's pretty obvious, other times you have to look for it. And once you've find a background you like, you have to figure out a way to light it to keep your subjects from blending in. Here are some shots that show some different approaches I have made to using either the foreground or the background, or in some cases, a nearby prop, to pull the photo together. Keep in mind that there are time constraints to nearly every shot I make, so I can't always refine the shot to my satisfaction

In this shot, the subjects are all judges in San Mateo County, so they all get top billing.

I always try to contact either the publicist or the event planner, and ask that they choose the most important guests at the event. I tell them that I only want the "Bride, Groom, Best Man, and the Maid of Honor", which conveys the idea that I only want top tier subjects. I will often remind them that the more people in the photo, the less recognizable they'll be, and I prefer to work in groups no larger than five. If they insist, I'll ask to shoot my preferred small group, then shoot the "big group" as they requested, and tell them I'll let my editor decide which one to print. Don't forget that in a large group, you'll still have to get the everybody's name, so add that into the time you'll need to make the photo. Publicists may be able to give you the names if you send them a per-publication shot. Just make sure they get it back to you promptly.

Casino Night: Foreground interest in this photo is the gaming table. Luckily, a single Zumbrella equipped speedlight did all of the heavy lifting. The windows in the background gave me some separation. 

The Mulligan would include some sort of light on the playing cards on the windows. However, this might have been more difficult because iTTL requires a line of sight between the on-camera Master and the Remote flashes. I would have had to position the background light behind something, and in doing so, destroy the necessary line of sight connection. Today, I would have used a radio transmitter that allowed iTTL throughput and the independent triggering of a manual, non-iTTL remote.

Costume Warehouse: Here, I used three speedlights to provide the background separation. I used one to fill the background (perpendicular to the clothes rack behind the subjects), a second to provide some edge lighting to give the shot some visual interest, and a third aimed directly at the back wall. The key light was provided by a shoot-through umbrella positioned behind me. Notice that these three ladies are the closest visual elements to the camera, so they actually are the foreground. 

The Mulligan would have been to put more props in the lower right hand side of the image. The Bird Heads were positioned on the rack a few minutes before the shot was made, an afterthought that adds to the image.

Event Chair and Sponsor: The event chairman and the sponsor (who happens to own the bakery) look like their chatting about the upcoming fundraiser. Here the background ambient shows the inside of the bakery, and my flash provided proper color for my subjects.

To help relax my subjects, I bought each of them their favorite cookie and had them sit down and discuss the upcoming fundraiser. This gave them something to talk about and something to do with their hands. Sooner or later, somebody is going to smile.

Candy: This young dancer's friends planned on surprising her with the sign they had created. When I saw the sign, I asked the students to pose for a group shot when she emerged from the venue. I made sure they understood that to get the shot II wanted, they would have to quick line up with their backs toward the building immediately after Candy cam out. When they lined up, I noticed the small gap between the "Y" and the "T" which  gave me just enough space for my main subject to stand. Light falls off towards the background, but the reflectivity of the individual letters helped bring the exposure into an acceptable range.

To simplify making the shot, I composed the image with the panels aligned with the background, and had Candy walk forward, or backward, until the composition was achieved.

High School Talent: Here was a two-plane lighting situation. I used an umbrella for the three senior performers in the foreground. But with such a large cast, I had to arrange for a second light plane just for them. I did this by placing two speedlights on tall light stands (one on each side of the three seniors) and put on "flags" to prevent light from spilling onto the tops of their heads. The created an (relatively) even cross lighting for the performers in the background. I wish I had time to play with some tinted gels, but I could only get a few minutes to make the shot during a break in the rehearsal. It took about 20 minutes to get the lights in place, and even then I felt hurried.  

One important hint: Tell your subjects to stay in place until you get their names. If you don't, they'll break formation before you have a chance to perform this critical task.

Sustainability Award: This year I changed my approach to Picket Fences. Since I usually get a press release for each event, I'll contact the Publicist, or whoever is serving in that capacity, and arrange to make the photo at the end of the ceremony. Now it is her/his responsibility to round up the talent. Publicists with more experience know how important it is to work with the media because every publish photo or article is a reflection on their skills. 

For whatever reason, I arrived "cold" at this event, so the honorees had no idea I was coming. Here, I found my subject immediately after she returned to her seat. I noticed the PowerPoint slide projected on the back wall, and made some preliminary exposures to see if I could use it as a background. It turns out that it would work only only if I made the photo from twenty feet away from my subject. Also, there was a lot of glare from the white walls and the table cloths, and this exposure was going to be the best rendition I could get. I quick preliminary ceiling bounce from an on-camera flash opened up the shadows, so I was ready to go. I went over an introduced myself, and congratulated her on her achievement. I told her I wanted to make a photo, and asked her to look at me and smile. She may have wondered why I took the shot from so far away, but that how it had to be done.

Organizational Anniversary: I was to photograph the five award winners scheduled on a significant anniversary of this organization. I tried to make some podium photos during the actual presentation, but found the event lighting some of  the worst I've ever seen. 

I decided to make a picket fence at the end of the event. While I was waiting around, I decided to highlight the background with a CTO gelled second speedlight.When the presentation ended, birthday cake was cut and passed out. I arranged for the award recipients to bring a piece with them and take a "Here's your slice!" pose. This helped the subjects relax, and I was rewarded with some sincere smiles. Unfortunately, I couldn't move the organization's banner into the composition, something I usually try to do.

Don't let yourself get bored with photographing groups. If you make an honest effort to make each picket fence a little better than your last "personal best", you might start to look forward to the assignments.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bethlehem A.D. 2014

Photo #1
Bethlehem 2014: This is the second time I photographed this event, and while I thought the shot would be a breeze, I was mistaken. I brought my normal DSLR kit, assuming that I'd have everything I could possibly need. I decided to leave my long lens behind, and substituted a Nikon SB-700 for my third speedlight, primarily because I could clip on a Color Temperature Orange (CTO) filter more easily that I could affix a gel.

Photo #2
I submitted Photo #1 as a possible lead for a "Hen and Egg" pairing of shots. The larger "hen" was the overview shot, while Photo #2, the detail shot, provided a more intimate view of the event. Both of these shots were made with a Fujifilm X-100S using a CTO filtered SB-700 for fill. I packed the camera as an afterthought, figuring that my normal Nikon bodies would do all of the heavy lifting. I used an MPEX Universal Translator between the speedlight and the camera's hot shoe to prevent any unnecessary communication through the hot shoe contacts. The flash was set to manual mode and the flash output was determined through trial and error.

Photo #3
Bounce Flash - Off My Hand. When I approached these two crafts people, I had an SB-700 on my Fuji X100s, complete with the CTO colored filter cap supplied with the flash. The filter would give me a light source that was very close to the halogen lamps placed in the stall for lighting. I was shooting at ISO 1600, and my flash was set to manual (the Nikon SB-700 and the Fuji can't communicate exposure information).

In my self portrait (Photo #3), I'm modeling a Nikon D70 with an SB-700 complete with CTO gel. The head of the speedlight has been rotated 180 degrees and is tipped slightly to the rear so that no direct light can hit my imagined subject. I have my hand at a 45 degree angle to reflect the light straight forward. The coloration of my skin adds a bit more warmth to the light. You can see that the light source is considerably higher than when the speedlight's head is faced forward in the conventional fashion. It works well when shooting in high ISO situations, since a lot of light is lost when using this technique.

Photo #4 is one of my two submissions from last year's Bethlehem A.D. 2013, and my favorite assignment photo from the year. There are a number of minor technical problems, but overall, it pretty much encapsulates the visual excitement of the event. The blue skylights and the harsh hot spotlight only add to the impact of the image, along with a near absence of 21st century artifacts.

Looking back, I think Photo #1 was technically superior to (last year's) Photo #4, but it was rejected in favor of more neutral Photo #2.  I believe that any "seasonal" photo would have a better chance of being published if the has a more secular theme. The nativity scene at the top of the page clearly depicts an event with deep religions significance to many people, but as we now celebrate the "holidays", photos like Photo #4 could be seen as the better choice.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Conditioning Your New Old Speedlights
I won't reinvent the wheel. David Hobby, aka The Strobist, wrote a post on June 14, 2013 concerning the re-conditioning flashes speedlights. It is appropriate that I bring this up, since my last post concerned the resurrection of an old Nikon SB-24 Speedlight (circa 1988) for use with my Nikon D70's. My last post alluded to my "bottom feeding" habits when in comes to seeking out used equipment, and how I managed to secure two nice looking SB-24s for a pittance. As a reminder, it was Mr. Hobby himself who started the buying frenzy for SB-24s with this blog posting back in 2006, and it seems that the price has now come back down to earth, at least so far as brick and mortar stores are concerned.

Older speedlights have probably spent the last dozen years in a state of suspended animation in some dark drawer or lonesome camera bag. Hopefully, they were stored without batteries, eliminating the consequences of a corrosive battery leak. Luckily for me my two new acquisitions were pristine, so far as their battery compartments were concerned. But this dormancy leads to a deterioration of the speedlight's ability to hold and electrical charge, and just like frostbite, they need to be revived slowly and carefully. I am quoting Mr. Hobby's speedlight posting, but you can read the entire post by clicking here.

"...Speedlights are designed so that the capacitors remain fully charged (to over 300v) when the unit is on. So working your way up from low power can actually be a problem, as you are leaving the cap in a near fully charged state most of the time. Which can cause a thermal runaway.

The process is just as easy, just a little different:

1. Turn on the speedlight and set it to full power.

2. As soon as the capacitor charges up (ready light glows) fire the flash.

3. Repeat the process.

4. Alas, speedlights do not dissipate heat very well when popped repeatedly at full power. And the last thing you want here is heat build-up. You may wish to turn the flash off and let it rest and cool every twenty pops or so.

5. This technique will build up the aluminum oxide layer on the cap (assuming it was not too far gone) and breathe new life into it..."
Power. When I get around to re-forming large numbers of speedlights, I often use a Quantum QB -1+ rechargeable battery pack and the appropriate adapters to service two flashes at a time. I have several adapters that will work on most older Nikon speedlights and many more for the obsolete Vivitar 283/285 flashes. I picked the packs up cheaply on EBay, and spent some extra bucks for new batteries from Desaga. The Quantum QB-1+ packs can often be had for a song. I saw one at a local Good Will store for only $20.00  The adapters are equally reasonable, but you'll find the Vivitar adapters are more plentiful, and less costly, than those for the Nikon. Also, be sure that your adapters match your specific battery pack, as Quantum has several variations in their product line.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Weak. Another alternative is to use your nearly depleted AA cells solely for the purpose of re-forming your capacitors. When my battery tester tells me they have passed their prime, these AA batteries are tossed into a plastic jar, ready to use. With my SB-800s and SB-900s l might attach one of my Nikon SD-8 battery packs modified to the more current SD-8a configuration, since I don't have the appropriate Quantum adapters for these two speedlights. Incidentally, updating an SD-8 pack (incompatible with the SB-800 and SB-900) is as simple as sending it to Nikon for a cable replacement. I've had at least six SD-8s so modified at a cost of about $20.00 plus shipping per unit. The SD-8 packs were once available for as little as $20.00 each on EBay, but they too have become more expensive, perhaps spurred on by a California photographer (me) who snapped them up as soon as they were offered.

Update: Nikon no  longer offers the cable upgrade to the SD-8 battery pack. I must have depleted their supply of replacement cables.

A final note: You will increase a speedlight's life expectancy by using it at regular intervals. Try to "pop" the unit a few times every monthly to keep the capacitors fresh.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Neutering* The Nikon SB-24 Speedlight

Updated February 19, 2015. Additions are in bold italics.

I was photographing some high-speed action with a Nikon D70 and an SB-800 speedlight connected together by a neutered SB-17 flash synchronization cable. I started to miss the convenience of having a "neutered" flash like the Lumopro 160*. Unfortunately, the Lumopro lacks a non-TTL (Through The Lens) exposure option, making it less convenient in a "run and gun" environment.

I got really lucky recently. I was at Keeble and Schuchat in Palo Alto on Saturday and saw a Nikon SB-24 speedlight in used equipment section. I convinced myself that I didn't need a fifth SB-24, although its price ($29.99 with no box or accessories) was very reasonable, considering its superior build quality when compared to a used Vivitar 283. I decided to pass. But by Monday, I decided to buy it, and when I returned to K & S I found that there were now TWO SB-24s, the second being cheaper than the first and sold with a Stofen Omni-Bounce diffuser dome and the requisite black Velcro strips. Rather than debate the issue, I bought them both.

Why the excitement over a flash that was first introduced in 1988? It has both full manual exposure control along with non-TTL exposure control. It had a zoom range of 24mm to 85mm, and no built in slave, minimal by today's standards. But it had build quality that matched its $249.99 price tag when it first appeared. Solid, reliable, and a real bargain today. For a while, they were the hot item, thanks to David Hobby and this post from 2006. Today on EBay they go for $40.00 and up, depending on whether the original box and pouch are included.

OK. Now I had two new speedlights to play with. I decided to try to "neutralize" the TTL function and the Speedlight Present contact so I could use it with my Nikon D70s at shutter speeds higher than the manufacturer's 1/500 synchronization ceiling. I took a deep breath, found my smallest Phillips screwdriver, and went to work.

Warning: If the flash has been used recently, it may still carry a residual electric charge in its capacitors. The high voltage jolt from a fully charged capacitor could give your a painful electric shock, which could be fatal. Obviously, I can't take any responsibility if you attempt this conversion on your own. But if you're going to attempt this modification, play it safe:
  • Install a set of fresh batteries.
  • Set the flash to manual.
  • Turn the flash on.
  • Set the output to full power.
  • When the Ready Light goes on, manually discharge the flash.
  • IMMEDIATELY turn the flash OFF!
  • Remove the batteries.
  • Set the flash aside for a week to allow any residual charge in the capacitors to completely dissipate.
Proceed at your own risk. 

Update: I strongly suggest that you purchase a good, proper screwdriver before proceeding. The tiny Phillips-head screws require a very small screwdriver, and the self-tapping nature of the screw itself will require a fair amount of force. I purchased  one (a VaCo P12) for $12.00 15 years ago, and it has given me excellent service. Those cheap mini-screwdriver sets? They'll just burr your screw heads and make the screws impossible to loosen or tighten. As somebody once said, "You buy the best only once". Good advice when it comes to tools!

Photo #1
Take a look at the SB-24 hot shoe (Photo #1). We can see the three pins surrounding the Trigger Contact (center): Speedlight Present (upper left), Quench (lower left), and Ready To Fire (lower right). If we disable these three contacts, we cut communication between the flash and the camera which will allow the use of shutter speeds past 1/500 of a second on the Nikon D70. Reminder: This photo shows the front of the base plate facing up.

Start the process by removing the four exterior screws at the bottom of the speedlight (see down arrows). These screws are small and short, so keep an eye on them. Draw the base plate of the speedlight away from the main body.

Photo #2
In Photo #2, you can see the base plate positioned for better viewing. You can see the interface wires, and you should be thankful that you won't have to deal with them. Just be sure that you don't accidentally pull any out of their junctions.

Photo #3
You can see in Photo #3 that there are three screws (white arrows). These screws hold the flash foot to the base plate. Remove these three screws. You'll notice that they are significantly longer than the four holding the base plate. When the screws are removed, draw the foot away from, and off, the base plate. You do not need to remove the green circuit board, and you shouldn't try to!

Photo #4
In Photo #4 you can see the four spring-loaded contacts. Remove the two top pins and the single lower pin as seen in the photo. No need to remove the springs. Reminder: This photo shows the front of the base plate facing down.

Photo #5
In Photo #5, the three outer contact pins have been removed, leaving the centrally located Trigger Contact. Now slide the flash foot back onto the base. Be careful to properly align the springs with their proper holes, and the two side-mounted grounding contacts (seen in green) with their own holes. Replace and tighten the three long screws, and be sure they are tight!. Finally, replace the four short base plate screws.

The foot, shown in Photo #6, is fully re-assembled and ready to go. You can still see the springs deep in their recess. You could re-install the contact pins, but why bother? The TTL functions work with film and early issue Nikon DSLRs. However, the non-TTL automation still functions and will give you satisfactory exposures under normal conditions, providing you take a few moments to "tweak" your camera's aperture because non-TTL flash automation sometimes overexposes the image. Stop down your lens aperture 1/3 or 2/3 stops until you get exposure levels that you like.

Some final notes. Before I bought the units, I checked to be sure that they did indeed function, and confirmed that I had return options if the units died on the way home, something EBay vendors almost never do. Also, it you don't have access to a D70, D50, or D40, none of these modifications will do anything to improve your flash sync speeds. 

Over the next few weeks, I'll be re-conditioning the capacitors to get them ready for some serious flash work when the weather gets better.

P.S. Need instructions for an SB-24? Download them here from the Nikon website. 

*"Neutered", in this context, means that the "Flash Present" contact has been disabled. If a Nikon D70 doesn't detect a signal for the Flash Present contact, it won't lock out flash synchronization at shutter speeds faster than 1/500th of a second, the manufacture's top speed for full access to iTTL flash metering.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nine Lives Photos October 14, 2015 - Taken with a Sigma 15-30mm 3.5-4.5.

Cavalia 2015: Your Eyes Only

The "Lounge" for the Press, complete with boutique and buffet. Cavalia has some tight restrictions, but they take care of the press!
The Money Shot: I submitted two. While this was my second choice, it was my Editor's first.
This was actually my first choice. I liked the more pleasing color rendition, but the galloping horse was chosen for publication. Hey, what's with the eye?
Lots of jumping using these cheetah feet. Very impressive, but my photos weren't that great.
My one gripe is the low level of light. Most of the images show some motion blur, and the overall softness that comes from shooting at less-than-optimal apertures.

Procession on the Plains. A splendid illusion of a very real landscape and a back-projected sky on a fabric background.

The set actually had a "mountain range" behind it. The sky is a projection. The results, when photographed, are stunning.
Nothing spectacular about this shot, It's an exercise in patience, waiting for the woman to be properly positioned in the light, and for the horse to take an interesting stance. Trite photo, but it's MY trite photo!
 A carousel was lowered from the ceiling to showcase the aerialists in the troupe.

Posed shot taken during a Q & A session at the show's conclusion.Had I asked the young lady to look up, as I heard another photographer doing, I'd have had a pleasing portrait. I guess I wasn't in the mood, since I already had the shot I wanted. The shot could have been salvaged with some fill-flash, but out of concerns for the performers and the horses, flash photography was forbidden. I should have asked the performer to close her eyes, smile, and place her cheek against the horse's forehead.

The cast takes a bow.
After the show, the horses are taken back to the stable. After seeing them perform, it's easy to forget that a startled horse in a crowded venue can result in some serious injury. Handlers were about, mainly for the safety of the participants.
Horsey getting a bath.

Halloween 2015: Morning

Nikon D600. 20-35mm 2.8 Nikkor. On-camera fill flash used in individual and small group shots.