Sunday, November 29, 2015

Balloons On The Bookshelf

Photo #1
Larry Teshara (Photo #1), Director of the San Mateo Adult School, returned to his office after an eleven-week absence spent convalescing. His popularity with the students is apparent from an earlier photo "Get Well Card" taken on campus. The image was a source of pride for Mr. Teshara, and it hung on his hospital room wall and followed him throughout his convalescence.

Photo #2
The photo (Photo #2), described here, was the sort of shot that gets a lot of mileage, simply because my application of a very powerful flash helped provide a level of shadow detail that would have been impossible without it. Short of posing the group in front of a 20-story flat white building facing due north, I can't think of another way to achieve this shot. But I digress.

The day before Mr. T's grand return, students wrote messages on balloons and left them randomly about his office (Photo #3), making it abundantly clear they were happy about his return. Now, Monday morning and twenty minutes before his entrance, I visited the office with to check to see if ceiling bounce was a viable exposure solution.

Photo #3
This sketch shot proved that ceiling bounce would work. However, the rather barren appearance of the background and the numerous balloons lying on the floor made me wonder if I could completely fill the background with balloons. The achieve that effect, I did the following (Photo #4):
  • I found a thin, 4 foot long aluminum strip and placed it on top of the bookshelf. Then, using binder clips, I alternately attached balloons in a one-up, on-down pattern until I had balloons covering the top of the bookshelf. If you look closely, you can see a thin silver line across the top of the bookshelf, the edge of the aluminum strip.
  • I attached my Fat Gecko to the window and tied the helium balloons to it. I originally purchased the Fat Gecko to photograph a rolling motorcycle with a camera stuck to the inside of one of my car's windows, but the shot was never made.
  • For the last, randomly placed balloons, I cut a discarded piece of mat board into 2" wide strips. I used additional binder clips to attach the balloon to one end, and then shoved the other end between shelved books or under anything that was convenient and heavy. This allowed me to place the last balloons just about anywhere that there was a "bare spot".
With a few minutes to spare, the desk was now suitably "populated" with balloons.

Photo #4
To get the high angle, I used the Live Preview feature of the D600 rather than resorting to a step ladder. The SB-900 was bounced high and behind me. The lens was the 20-35mm 2.8 Nikkor that seems to be a real winner once the back focus issue was addressed.

Photo #5
One final thought: Larry has Photo Grey glasses which turn dark whenever he's outside. Anticipating this, I immediately handed him the lens-less eyeglass frames I keep at my desk for these situations. I didn't know if the darkened lenses or the glare would actually be a problem, but I decided to take no chances.

Larry fell into this pose all by himself (Photo #5), and I felt it revealed something of his true spirit, finally returning to the place where he truly wanted to be.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Split Composition

Screen Capture taken from October 12, 2015 on-line issue of the San Mateo Daily Journal*
The Belmont Fire Department was holding an open house to give the community a chance to get "up close and personal" with some real fire engines and to meet some real fire fighters. I wanted to experiment with mixed inside/outside light situations, not realizing that the Journal had already assigned a student photographer to make a photo, and she submitted this image (Photo #1) for publication. It was accepted, and eventually published.

When I first saw the photo, I thought I was looking at two separate images. The junction between the side panels of truck and the chrome steel panel beside the control panel form a nearly unbroken line which sits on the half-way point between the left and right halves of the photo. This contributes to the "two photo" illusion. The effects could have been minimized by placing this juncture either to the left or right of center, preferably along one of the two vertical "rule of thirds" lines.

Photo #2
I submitted this image (Photo #2) which was made with the same theme as the first. I this case, I composed the image to include more of the right two-thirds, since all of the human interaction occurred there. I wanted to emphasize the human side of the encounter, and the appearance of pride by the firefighter. The unbroken vertical  side panel/sheet steel junction has much less of an impact when its farther from the center. I might has experimented with the composition more if another parent hadn't been standing right next to me, camera right.

You can see the difference an on-camera fill flash can make. I can essentially ignore the shadows and expose the highlights for improved color saturation. The fill light puts light, and detail, back into the shadows at a level that compliments, but does not overpower, the highlights. If you look closely at the fireman's face, you can can see that the highlights on his forehead, while overexposed, are relatively small. The fill flash provides plenty of detail.

Photo #3
I liked this particular image (Photo #3), even though I didn't submit if for possible publication. By using my "palm bounce" technique, I was able to through some light into the cramped, black interior of the fire engine cab. I would have loved the shot if I could have gotten a fireman (or firewoman!) beside my young subject. That's probably why I didn't submit it, although I did send a copy to her mother.

* I did not have access to the original image, so the quality has been severely compromised.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Butterfly Lighting - Again

I believe that blogging has changed how we view the progression of our educational milestones. Books, as we knew them, documented our personal explorations spread over an extended period of time and are then compressed between the front and back covers. When recalling a sequence of events that lead to that light bulb moment, it is easy to skip the inevitable trials and errors and go straight to the epiphany. On the other hand, a blog entry is often created in the moment of inspiration, and can be revised quickly and with relative ease. As a result, my blog, like my life, is subject to change as today's ideas and beliefs transform themselves into tomorrow's axioms and facts.

My photographic experiments often include lighting faces that are wearing glasses. This is particularly convenient, since I've been a qualified model since the mid 1950's. In a nutshell, butterfly lighting works well in this situation. By keeping the Key Light (the one that casts the shadow) and the fill light (the one that puts detail into the shadows) well off the axis, there is less light to reflect back from the center of your subject's eyeglasses. You may see the hint of glare at the top edge of my glasses, but this blends in with my eyelids and is therefore less noticeable. Keep in mind that this glare is actually the reflection of the ceiling, illuminated by my on-camera bounce.

Left: Flash Tube uncovered;    Center: Flash Tube half covered;    Right: Flash tube three-quarters covered
Controlling Output: Arcane knowledge abounds. Back in the day, flashes often had a single output level: Full.When working close to our subjects, we commonly reduced the practical output by partially covering the flashtube with our fingers, the more fingers, the less light output. This was fine when the camera was mounted on-camera. But because the Nikon SB-30 has an SU-4-type remote triggering capability, something besides fingers would be needed if it is used off-camera. I decided to leave a piece of gaffer tape on the back of the flash and use it to provide as much coverage as the situation dictated. See the above tryptic.

Post Script: The flash tube in the right image IS correctly covered. The bright portion that you see to the left of the gaffer tape blinder is decorative, and not part of the flash tube. 

Big Catchlights: In an earlier post, I used some Tupperware and a cookie sheet to bounce light on to a hardwood floor. Looking back, it would have been faster to simple place the SB-30 on the ground facing the subject, and placing a Zumbrella, or similar shoot-through umbrella, between it and my subject's face. I still get the low angle necessary to eliminate glasses-glare and a much larger light source, but gain a measure of speed and simplicity in the setup.

This is photo of a typical shoot-through umbrella, placed on a linolium floor about 3 feet in front of me. The SB-30 is hiding underneath, and is triggered by an on-camera (manual) speedlight bounced off of a very high ceiling. You can see how this would provide a large catchlight and a soft fill light from below, the reasons one goes to butterfly lighting in the first place. Again, this is an easy and effective setup if your main camera-mounted speedlight is providing a bounced key light from a nearby wall-ceiling juncture. If you're finding that the fill is a bit too strong, just cover a portion of the fill light's flash tube with gaffer tape, as I did here. 

Reminder To Self: This technique only works for head shots, since the full and three-quarter length portraits will result in overexposure below your subject's waist.

My father had always told me to avoid multiple catchlights. This stands for reason: In a natural environment, there should be only one light source: The Sun. This portrait reflects this philosophy, as only a single catchlight can be seen in each eye. I continue to follow his advice, and will consider this "light under an umbrella" a useful technique for providing both catchlights and shadow detail, especially when my subjects are wearing glasses.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The SB-400 Does Something Useful, Part 2

I presented the theory in my last post that when (some) Nikon cameras are set to manual exposure, the Exposure Compensation Dial can be used to adjust a shoe-mounted iTTL speedlight. The goal was to provide a level of control over the speedlight when used as a fill light.

The Two Exposure Theory: Before proceeding, I'd like to present a model often used to explain the difference between ambient exposure and flash exposure. The ambient exposure, or the "available light", is set using a combination of exposure duration (shutter speed) and aperture size (F-Stop).  The Flash exposure is determined by the F-Stop only, assuming that the shutter speed you are using is within the normal synchronization range of the camera. In most Nikon DSLRS, it is 1/200 or 1/250 of a second. On the Nikon D50, D70/D70s, and D40, it is 1/500 of a second. However, the P7700 has a leaf shutter mounted inside of the non-removable lens, and can therefore synchronize at any speed, theoretically. There is a caveat to that, as we shall see.
Exposure 1 - Ambient : To test the theory presented in my last post, I mounted the P7700 on a tripod and positioned it in the shadow of a tree.With the ISO set to 200 and the aperture set to F 5.6, four exposures were made.
  • Top left: 1/250 of a second
  • Top right: 1/500 of a second
  • Lower left: 1/1000 of a second
  • Lower right: 1/2000 of a second
Exposure 2 - Flash : The shoe mounted SB-400 speedlight does not have a built-in exposure compensation dial. Instead, I'll be using the dial on the top of the P7700, as shown in my last post. 

In this series, the Exposure Compensation Dial was set to, form left to right, -3 stops, -2 stops, and -1 stop of underexposure. Notice the the sky stays the same, and the flash only illuminates the tree.

Now this is all TTL stuff, so the exposure represents the camera's best guess at what you want. It makes a judgement based on the relative brightness of the regions identified by the Nikon Matrix Metering algorithm, and it's usually pretty close.

In this next sequence, the Exposure (flash) Compensation was set, from left to right: 0 stops, +1 stop, and +2 stops. You may notice that the difference between the +1 exposure and the +2 is not as pronounced as one might guess. This may (emphasize the word "may") be cause by the flash exposure getting clipped at the exposure time of 1/2000 of a second. This is something that must be considered when using leaf shutters in these super-sync situations.

Depth Of Flash - Again: Remember that distance plays a part in the intensity of the flash. Nearer objects are "brighter" than those more distant. The shot above was made at 1/250 at 5.6, ISO 200, without flash. The concrete sidewalk is obviously darker than the vertical retaining wall.

For this shot, the flash was engaged. You can see that the shadows nearest the camera (lower left) are brighter than those farther away (upper right). Distance decreases intensity, as you can plainly see here.

What this proves is that there are some controls available when using the Nikon P7700/SB400 combination. Not that this is an ideal combination, but I think this may come in handy someday.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Finally: The SB-400 Does Something Useful

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I own a Nikon SB-400 speedlight. From a feature point of view, it's has only one setting TTL, one control (on/off), and nothing else. It head can be tilted to the vertical position, but not rotated. No manual, no Aperture Automation, no nothing.

To my surprise, Stoffen actually makes a diffusion dome for the tiny unit. I can't imagine how this would contribute to improved light quality, but obviously somebody did.

 I bought it for two reasons: I was curious to see how it would perform with my Nikon D40, and being the ultimate Nikon Fan Man, I thought it was cute. Count on it, I'll buy something that I want, and will spend a lifetime justifying the purchase.

Ken Rockwell puts great stock in the unit, firmly believing that it's the only on-camera flash a photographer really needs. I would agree with him, if my needs coincided with his, which they don't. After all, he probably created the  "Cute Photos Of My Kids" genre of blog photography. And while the photos are technically fine, they're just not to my tastes. 

Normally, I would use the SB-400 only as a fill light for my Tokina 10-17mm fisheye. In this sample made on an overcast Halloween celebration, the fill just barely provides enough light for a decent catchlight, which is about all I wanted or needed. This shot, taken in 2008, was probably the last time I actually used the lens.

New Playdate: I have a Nikon P7700 which I've used as an emergency, shoot-flash-in-sunlight camera. Because the lens is not removable, it can utilized a leaf shutter, allowing it to synchronize at some very high speeds. While its pixel count exceeds my D70 bodies, the small sensor yields images with high noise potential and excessive depth of field. But it is what it is, and used only in extreme circumstances when its unique capabilities make possible to use an on-camera flash to wrestle with impossibly bright sunlight.

I noticed the placement of the Exposure Compensation Dial (see down arrow, above), is conveniently placed for manipulation by my right thumb. I didn't give much thought to its usefulness because I seldom make adjustments in either of the two automated exposure modes (aperture and shutter). When used in Aperture Priority, rotating the dial can increase or decrease the exposure by lengthening or reducing the exposure time, respectively. (I have no idea how the camera would respond the the Program or Fully Auto exposure modes, as I never use them). However, when the camera is in the Manual Mode, the shutter and aperture are set by the user and not the camera. Rotating the Exposure Compensation Dial will have no effect on the exposure duration or aperture size. Unless...

There's A SB-400 In My Hotshoe! That's right! I can use the dial to adjust the output of a shoe-mounted SB-400. I suspect this is the only speedlight that can be so adjusted because exposure compensation in the iTTL Nikon Speedlight is controlled with the + and - control buttons at the 3:00 and 9:00 positions of the Multi Selector. The SB-400 has no Multi Selector, but this might actually work.

I tried it out on a Nikon D70 and it appears to also work. It did NOT work on a D600. But the SB-400 could be the ideal pairing for the P7700, since the flash exposure compensation would be right under my thumb, providing I remember to shoot in the Manual Mode, and confine myself to using the flash as a fill light.

 When I have a chance, I'll try it out on something real.

More to follow...