Sunday, March 29, 2015

Extreme Clamshell Lighting For Subjects With Glasses

This selfie was an experiment in working with subjects who wear glasses. My goal for this shot was to avoid the spot-on glare on my glasses while getting some catchlights (little glare spots) in my eyes. I've done this before using a silver reflector, but I wanted to see if a small speedlight, namely my newly acquired SB-30, could somehow be used to help in the effort.

My secondary goal was to get an out of focus background. The use of a Sigma 20mm F 1.8 lens helped. This combination might come in handy when making a portrait in quarters with as much visible background as possible.

Clamshell Lighting
Clamshell Lighting: Clamshell Lighting is the use of two large and soft light sources. Typically, a large softbox (key light) is directed from above the lens axis, and a second, less powerful one (fill light) directed from below. In my adaptation of the technique, an on-camera speedlight would be the key light and a second speedlight on the floor as the fill. The illustration at the left is a typical Clamshell Lighing setup. Click here for the photo source.

The on-camera SB-28 speedlight's small head allowed me to slip on an improvised snoot made from a spaghetti box.  The snoot would prevent any direct light from hitting my face while directing a puddle of light onto the wall just above, and to right, of the subject. The relatively wide aperture (F 2.5) allowed me to run my speedlights at 1/4 to 1/8 power, giving me some very fast recycle times.

Floor Fill: I started by setting the SB-30 to "slave" mode and placing the unit in a large Tupperware container. The down side is  the speedlight delivers a full pop of power when used as a slave. Here you see that the flash in the Tupperware, pointing upward. Unless I found a way to decrease the output, its brightness would be "off the charts" so far as proper fill exposure was concerned.

The SB-30's manual output could have been reduced if I attached a slave trigger to the hotshoe. I didn't have one at the time, so I tried to cut the power by using sheets of paper to form a translucent "lid" for my little box of light. Sure as shootin', light from the SB-30 blasted right through the paper. Next, I looked for something opaque that could also serve as a reflector. I reasoned that if I bounced the light off of the floor, it would give me a larger catchlight and lower its intensity at the same time.

I went to the kitchen and found an aluminum pie plate. Used as a reflector, it would allow the light to bounce off the underside and onto the floor, then back up into my face. The left photo was lit with a single, on-camera flash bounced from the facing wall.

I turned the slaved SB-30 on, replaced the pie plate cover, and made another shot. You can see that the effect was massive. The photo on the right shows the hardwood floor severely overexposed, even though the aperture was identical to the shot on the left. It looked like the floor fill-light problem might be solved.

Getting my main (or key light) to appear from overhead was easier to address. I wanted the light as far from the lens axis as possible to minimize any flash glare on my glasses. This was solved by turning the speedlight head 135 degrees to the left, and elevating the beam to 60 degrees from the horizontal. I concentrated the beam angle by zooming the flash to an 80 degree angle and adding that improvised spaghetti-box snoot. 

In this cheesy but dramatic reenactment, you can see that the light "splash" is located high above my head, and to my left. I'm standing about a foot away from the wall behind me, which further reduces the size of the flash hot-spot. Notice my fancy improvised snoot. Incidentally, the shot is actually my reflection in a mirror. And yes, I did reverse the image to be more representative of how the actual photo was taken.

1/200, F 2.5, Sigma 20mm 1.8 lens on a Nikon D70.
Now that I had my key and my fill lights, I made my shot. I added a background light in the back room (down arrow), but the result was very uneven. Also, you can see the effects of the existing incandescent lighting fixture (left arrow).

The single take-away from this technique is the near absence of glare from my glasses. Check the image at the top of the page, and you'll see the catch lights created by the flash on the floor. It was made larger by the floor-bounce technique.

So here you have Tom Jung, the most photographed photographer in the Bay Area. Hair by Jeanette Kanzawa. Glasses by Hugo Boss. Polo Shirt by Izod.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Perfect Umbrella Bracket?

There is no such thing as a perfect umbrella bracket. I should know. I think I've bought them all.

I did find one that has come closer to any I've yet encountered. I purchased it from a vendor based in Las Vegas who is a regular on the camera show circuit. I don't think that her company has exclusive distribution rights, so surely it must be available from somewhere. Needless to say, it's made in China. (Update: I found a Chinese vendor who has what appears to be the same unit. I found several sources that have only one slotted screw for the cold shoe, so check carefully. Check it out here. If the link dead ends, we're all out of luck. I found a similar unit available in the U.S. here.)
Some of the high points are:
  • Metal Construction: This makes it much more compact than the plastic Photo Flex brackets.
  • Mounting Options: The unit comes with a reversible spigot that can be used with lightstands equipped with either a 1/4 X 20 or 3/8 X 16 male thread. The spigot can be removed and the unit clamped onto a standard 5/8  lightstand "top".
  • Ratchet "Teeth": The swiveling holder has teeth to eliminate umbrella sag, so long as you remember to tighten it. 
  • Strong Umbrella Retaining Screw: The screw that holds the umbrella in place is all metal and nearly 1/4" in diameter. The gripping portion is grooved for easy tightening and has a coin slot for those times when you need to apply a little extra torque, which is not visible in the photo.
  • Clamp-Type Cold Shoe: The shoe actually clamps onto the speedlight's foot for full contact. The cold shoe clamping screw also has a coin slot. Look for the black up arrow and you can just make out the coin slot.
  • 1/4 X 20 Attaching Screw: This is the BIG one. The cold shoe can be unscrewed from the bracket and replaced with anything with a 1/4 x 20 female thread, including the Frio Cold Shoe, a Nikon AS-10 Flash Adapteror even a Nikon SC-28 TTL Coiled Remote Cord. Tighten the provided thumb wheel against the cold shoe or cable once you've gotten it properly aligned.

You can see the stud after the cold shoe and the thumb wheel have been removed.  This screw makes the unit is much shorter than the Impact Umbrella Bracket.

Front Or Back? The is only one "correct" orientation. The umbrella is inserted so that it inclines upwards to intersect the beam of the speedlight. If you look closely, you can see that I've painted a small "U" (for "up") on the side where the umbrella shaft goes in. See the right pointing white arrow.

Speaking Of Umbrella Shafts: Inserting a regular pencil into the umbrella shaft will help to prevent its collapse when you tighten the thumbscrew. A good thing to do with all of those pencil stubs you have in a cup on your desk, assuming that you still know how to use a pencil. Here's a photo of a Pro Photo umbrella bracket, added on March 25, proving that a pencil will indeed fit snugly into the shaft. Another option might be to glue a 1/4" diameter piece of aluminum rod, if you use epoxy to fill the .025" gap where the rod falls short. I may have to take this route on my next umbrella since I've started to "choke up" on the shaft when I needed to produce a more direction light source, or to minimize light from the flash spilling over the edge of the umbrella.

Let's Pick Nits. There is one moderate annoyance. The base is drilled for a shorter spigot that is noticeably shorter than those I'm used to seeing. Consequently, one can't seat a normal spigot to its full depth. This leaves a small, unsupported area that bothers me, but not enough for me to photography it, or for you to examine it. Anyway, I could easily replace the standard spigot on my monopod for the shorter one that comes with the clamp.

I have to say that this umbrella bracket has addressed nearly all of my concerns. As of this writing, I haven't taken the unit into the field, but I'll update this posting after the completion of its sea trials.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Error Messages: The Nikon D70

Photo #1
Fan Man: As you must know by now, I’m a big fan of the Nikon D70. Introduced in early 2004, it was one of the first digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras to break the $1000.00 barrier. I am always on the lookout for gently used samples, but they are getting rarer, as they are now being sold or traded after being used for longer and longer periods of time. This decreases the chances that I'll find a really nice one, although they are still out there.  I would have to stop and think about how many D70 and D70s bodies I currently own, so keeping track of them can sometimes be a bother. I’ve taken to naming them, usually with some reminder of a unique feature. I named one “Centipede” (Photo #1) because I purchased it for $100.00 in 2012.

The D70 had some issues. A firmware update was issued in May of 2005, in part to correct some initial problems and bring the performance closer to the newer D70s, introduced about a year after the D70. The upgrade must have been popular, since I have encountered only one used D70 that had not been updated. The second notable problem was much more involved. Early production D70 bodies sometimes fell victim to the Blinking Green Light Of Death, sometimes call BGLOD, a problem traced to a batch of defective circuit boards in the read/write system. Nikon was criticized for not recalling them all, but instead issued a service bulletin offering to fix any D70 body that failed because of the defective component, in or out of warrantee. The service bulletin only covered the D70, and Nikon USA would service only those bodies that they themselves imported and warranted.

Nikon USA Imports Vs. Gray Market: A camera that is NOT sold though the official importer is called “Gray Market” and Nikon USA is under no obligation to repair it under warrantee. Check the serial number on the bottom of the body. If the first two digits are “30”, your D70 was imported by Nikon USA and if you get the BGLOD, you may be eligible for a free repair. I sent one of my ailing D70 bodies back and it was indeed repaired free of charge, but apparently some other photographers were not so lucky.  For more information on Nikon DSLR serial numbers, click here. I suspect that if your D70 hasn’t failed by now, it probably won’t. Just as well, since I can only speculate on the availability of parts.

Photo #2
Operational Errors: There are two operation errors that I've encountered in various D70 bodies. First, the CHA error (Photo #2), and the Nikon D70 manual lists the following causes:
  • Error accessing memory card. 
  • Unable to create new folder 
  • Card has not been formatted for use in D70.
I follow best practices and format every CF card in the camera I plan to use it in, so this can be ruled out as the cause. But "Error accessing memory card"? Duh. The listed listed fixes are:
  • Use Nikon-approved card. (Check page 192 of the manual. None of MY cards was on the approved list!)
  • Check that contacts are clean. If card is damaged, contact retailer or Nikon representative. (I've seen CF cards that were damaged by a bent interface pin, so keep your cards and camera clean).
  • Delete files or insert new memory card.
  • Format memory card.
This has happened in the field, and my fix is simple.
  • Turn the camera off.
  • Eject the card.
  • Insert the card firmly.
  • Turn the camera on.
This dodge usually works on the first try. Always by the second.

Photo #3
Err Error Message (Photo #3): This is a little more serious. Straight from the manual, page 199:

  • Camera malfunction: Release shutter. If error persists or appears frequently, consult with Nikon-authorized service representative.
This was NOT helpful! However, on page 200:

"In extremely rare instances, unusual characters may appear in the control panel and the camera may stop functioning. In most cases, this phenomenon is caused by a strong external static charge. Turn the camera off, remove and replace the battery, and turn the camera on again, or, if you are using an AC adapter (available separately), disconnect and reconnect the adapter and turn the camera on again. If the problem persists, press the reset switch (see arrow) and then reset the camera clock to the correct date and time. In the event of continued malfunction, contact your retailer or Nikon representative. Note that disconnecting the power source as described above may result in loss of any data not recorded to the memory card at the time the problem occurred. Data already recorded to the card will not be affected." To see the original article, click here.May Day! May Day! A week ago, the Centipede stopped working and the "ERR" began was displayed on the control panel. Pressing the shutter release had no effect. I instinctively removed the battery and replaced it with a freshly charged one, to no avail. In desperation, I located the reset switch, pressed it, and the camera was resurrected! Overjoyed, I began clicking the shutter, over 500 times in all, trying to make the error return, which it didn't.Until the following week. This time, I photographed the Control Panel, thinking this would be a good topic for a blog, and when I finished, pressed the reset button with sublime confidence. And just like before, all was set to right. The camera, I'm happy to say, is still working.Epilogue: The Centipede may now be back in my good graces, but to make sure I don't take it on an assignment, I removed the neckstrap, a gesture indicating Centipede's demotion to "hanger queen". I still use it to test lighting and flash techniques, but without the neck strap, I won't accidentally take it with me on assignment.  Serial Numbers: Because NikonUSA will only approve warranty repairs on cameras they import, it's important that you know which cameras entered the country "properly". Click here to read an article on how to tell whether your camera was an approved importUpdate July 23, 2015: Some casual research show another possible cause of the problem: Users of older, D type lenses (those with an aperture setting ring) must be set AND LOCKED at the minimum (smallest) setting. While this wasn't my case, I've added this link for more information.Click here. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

That's One BIG Umbrella!

I was doing a pre-event  photo for a charity fashion show that had a Japanese Garden theme. Immediately, my mind was spinning in possibilities! It so happens that we have a Japanese Garden in San Mateo's Central Park, and that it opened at 10:00 am. I scheduled the shoot for 10:15 (or so) so everybody could go about their business as soon as the shoot was over.

Photo #1
The Scout: The day before the shoot, I dropped by the Garden at 11:00 am to size up the location. I wanted to keep the Japanese Garden theme, and decided this tea house would make an interesting background (Photo #1).

There was one major problem: The Tea House would be lit from the font at our 10:15 shooting time. This was a big problem because my subjects, standing in the foreground, would be facing into the sun. They would surely be squinting, and have deep shadows on their eyes. Sure, I could fill the shadows with an additional speedlight or two, but that would require a delicate balance between the light I was adding (speedlight fill) and the light that was already there (the direct sunlight). I'd be piling light on top of light, a tricky situation at best. If there was a way to "scrim" (block) the light that was hitting my subjects, I could then add back the as much light as I wanted using those speedlights.

Overdressed: I was way over-equipped for this shot, and I knew it. I brought the following:
  • 2 DSLR bodies
  • 3 lenses
  • 3 dedicated speedlights
  • 2 complete Norman 200B units with Quantum heads with umbrella holders
  • 2 Eilenchrome Skyport radio flash triggers for the Quantums
  • 2 7-foot Westcott Umbrellas (One shoot through, one silver)
  • 1 60-inch Westcott shoot-through umbrella
  • 1 paint pole
Photo #2
I brought the two Westcott 7' Parabolic Umbrellas (one white shoot-through, one silver) which I've used as traditional bounce umbrellas in the past. I also brought the 2 Norman 200B flash units in case I needed lots of additional light. I figured that I could easily use the silver umbrella both as a scrim and a bounce surface, if necessary. But I also thought that the translucent shoot-through umbrella could be used to diffuse the direct sunlight light all by itself. After mounting it on a paint pole, I grabbed  quick shot of Cissie standing behind it, allowing the sunlight to softly sidelight her face. As you can see in Photo #2, it produces a soft, directional light that doesn't need any additional fill for the shadows. Notice how I "choked up" on the umbrella. These seven-footers are heavy, and the closer to the center of mass you clamp it, the better.

Photo #3
From this close-up (Photo #3), you can see how the light softly transitions from highlight to shadow. When I saw this shot, I knew we had a winning combination.

In anticipation of the shot, I had made some enlarged "invitations" created from the event logo glued to the suitable piece of scrap cardboard. I also brought some borrowed parasols to use as props, just in case.

Lights! Camera! Action! At the appointed time, the "talent" arrived, along with the event publicist, who made the introductions. As soon as everyone was settled, we started shooting (Photo #4). You can see how nicely the enlarged event invitations turned out. This was one of the first shots in the series, so some adjustment of the height of the invitations and some minor adjustments in the hand positions were still to be done.

Photo #4
I was a little bothered by the branches in the background, and changed my vantage point several times to avoid "tree hair" on my subjects. And while I hadn't noticed at the time, my middle subject looked a little strange with her hands hidden. And while I would have been content to submit a variation of this image, Cissie suggested we add a shot with the parasols, since we brought them. A better suggestion has never been made!

And The Winner Is...: The parasol addressed those issues beautifully. The round outline hid most of the tree branches, making the image much less busy. And now I could see the hands of the middle subject. Photo #5 was one of these last few images, and was a lucky combination where everything worked well together.

Photo #5: ISO 100, 1/250 of a second, F 5.6
Picking Nits: When using this technique, it's important to remember that my subjects, positioned in the shadow of the translucent umbrella, received less light than the background. The difference may have been as much as two stops of exposure. This means that a dark background would be rendered lighter (as it was here), or a bright background overexposed beyond recognition. I could have substituted my reflective silver umbrella, which would have blocked all the direct sunlight, and added a speedlight or three to bring the lighting level on the foreground up to the same level as the background.

Looking back, I feel a little humble that my planning actually came up a little short, but Cissie's suggestion gave me the win. The photo was a gift I may not have deserved.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

More On-Camera Fill Part 2

Photo #1
I discussed some of the accessory flash options that are available should you need to add some speedlight magic to your outdoor photography. While the emphasis has been on accessory (hot shoe) flash options, you should also remember that most digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras have a pop-up flash that can help out in a pinch (Photo #1, left). Obviously, it's always available, but has some serious shortcomings. First, its proximity to the lens axis produces nearly shadowless lighting and some unflattering hot spots on your subject's face. Secondly, it's use is limited to the designated maximum flash synchronization speed, which in the case of the D50/D70/D40 class of Nikon DSLR means 1/500 of a second. Lastly, lenses significantly larger than the usual kit lens will cast a shadow on your subject. Granted, there are other uses for the popup, but I consider it the fill light of the last resort.

The second speedlight in the lineup (Photo #1, center) is the Nikon SB-30. Compact and versatile, it provides adequate fill light at short distances and has a very basic SU-4 (optical slave) capability. Due to its construction, it is impractical to attempt to neuter it, but may be workable if a MPEX Universal Translator is placed between it and the shot shoe. Right now my two Translators are hiding from me, so I can be absolutely sure this would work. (Update 3/03: It works!)

Last in the lineup (Photo #1, right) is a neutered Nikon SB-26. When used with an SD-8 battery pack, it really shines, allowing for rapid follow-up shots. And because I removed the Speedlight Ready contact, I can actually use Aperture Priority outdoors for some even lighting.

Photo #2
You can clearly see from the composite photo that the SB-26 places the flash tube higher than the other two options. At close range (under 7 feet) this should eliminate red-eye and, when used as a primary light source and even provide some "modeling" (giving a two dimensional photo the illusion of three dimensionality) by creating some visible shadows. But be careful. Even shoe mounted flashes like the SB-26 or SB-800 aren't tall enough to eliminate red eye at longer distances, even when used outdoors. In my enhanced photo of a roadkill-eating red squirrel (Photo #2), shot at a distance of about fifteen feet, you can see what could happen.

Photo #3
You can improve the modeling of your on-camera flash by raising it still higher. While this can be done with a flash bracket, there are inexpensive attachments that can help in this regard. The Gary Fong Lightsphere is commonly used for this purpose, but because of its "light everywhere" design, it's better suited for indoor shooting where you may actually capture some of the ricocheting ceiling and wall light to soften the shadows. But outdoors, the Light Sphere just wastes light. A better option is the Lumiquest 80/20 with an accessory silver insert attached (Photo #3). It attaches with adhesive Velcro (fuzzy side on the flash) or with a Lumaquest Ultra Strap. Some advise: add a rubber hair band to give the Velcro some help.

One other thing: The 80/20 (the Pocket Bouncer and the Ultra Soft are essentially the same thing) not only elevates the light farther away from the lens axis but also won't obstruct the sensor's view of the world. I've carried an Ultra Soft in my camera bag for years, but was always able to find a convenient wall as a bounce surface for my flash. Now, suitably armored and armed with a neutered SB-26 or SB-28, an SD-8 battery pack, and my trusty Nikon D70S, I'm ready to photograph some convenient windmills.