Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Fuji X-E1 In The Field - Part 3

Photo #1
Bethlehem 2015: This was my third "Bethlehem", and the first one that I photographed under the constant threat of rain. It is also the third assignment where I decided to go mirrorless and use my Fuji kit. I also figured that the small size of the camera would make it easier to slip under my parka in case I got caught in a downpour.

With Cissie as my VAL (Voice Actuated Lightstand), I had much more flexibility in the actual placement of my light. But considering the close quarters we’d be working in, I had to take portability into consideration, in addition to keeping things as simple as possible. Instead of my usual monopod, I had decided to use a Canon Chest Pod that I bought used for a song. And while it gave me an extended length of 20 inches, its practical length was considerably longer when I had someone else to do the extending. If I needed to make a low angle shot with the camera at ground level, Cissie could get my light almost eight feet above my camera’s line of sight, a useful capability.

On camera bounce flash has always been a useful technique, and since I decided to use Fuji bodies, I would be forced to use my Fuji EF-42 if I was to have TTL capabilities. Normally I might resort to non-TTL automation on one of my Nikon speedlights, but this feature only works with relatively high output, low ISO combinations. Had I attempted to use an SB-800 in non-TTL mode, my minimum working aperture would be F8.0 when coupled with the ISO setting of 1600 I planned on using. TTL would be the only way I could handle working apertures of F 2.0, or lower. Besides this output limitation, I would be totally dependent on finding usable bounce surfaces on location, something you can’t always count on.

Having Cissie to run interference allowed me a second option. Lacking bounce surfaces, some sort of modified direct light would be needed. I decided to use an SB-800 with one of Gary Fong’s Light Sphere.As recommended, the wide angle diffusion panel was used for maximum spread. I also installed the factory CTO equivalent gel so that my light would match the high-intensity quartz lights used to illuminate the booths. And as a final touch, I covered the whole affair in a plastic bag, which added a tiny bit more diffusion, but primarily kept the whole thing dry. By leaving my white balance setting on daylight, everything lit by the flash would have a warm glow.

Step #1: Gel in place.
In these illustrations, you can see how I prepared the flash. Step #1 shows the installation of the Nikon gel, "tail" inserted into the flash head and the front held in place by the wide angle panel. Step #2 shows the head tilted to the vertical position. In this photo, it's actually inclined forward slightly to show the gel, held in place by the wide angle panel. The rubber band around the speedlight head is to improve traction for the "legs" of the Light Sphere. Gary Fong provides a special, limited edition, autographed rubber band just for the purpose when you purchase one of the Lightsphere Universals. Additional bands can be had, for a price. I'll keep my eye out for those purple rubber bands used to hold bunches of broccoli together, since they're free! And I like broccoli. Also, the ubiquitous Velcro strip many shooters install to facilitate attaching their Lumiquest accessories works well, too.

Step #2: Head tilted up
Step #3: Good to Go!
Once the gel is in place, you can attached the Light Sphere The unit, as pictured in Step #3, is ready to go.

Take a quick look at the "Cloud Dome", the giant opaque contact lens that covers the "mouth" of the Light Sphere. When the flash head point up, the dome should be installed so that the dome's curve is inside. This allows light to bounce off the inside surface of the dome and out through the Light Sphere. (Gary Fong has a name for everything!)

Triggering the speedlight was another problem. Had I brought a Nikon DSLR, I could have used a second, shoe-mounted SB-800 as a commander. Going with the Fuji forced me to find an alternative triggering method and way to determining proper exposure. I solved the triggering problem by using an inexpensive EBay radio trigger set, one where the receiver had a shoe on top to hold the flash, and a ¼ x 20 thread underneath. Compact (and fragile), it screwed into the Canon Chest Pod, giving me both the height and the connectivity I wanted.

Here's the flash, triggered via radio transceiver, without, and with, the accessory secondary light modifier, a.k.a. baggie flash raincoat. (I actually used a bag large enough to completely cover the transceiver flash mount.) You can see that the flash area is nearly doubled by the bag. Incidentally, I may have gotten the idea from a post this David Hobby post where he used a much larger plastic bag on a coat hanger frame.

The great thing about this arrangement is the ease with which this little ball of light can be placed exactly where it is needed. In the opening shot (Photo #1), you can see that the light is coming from high camera left. The shadows are distinct but not overly hard-edged. The flash to subject distance is long enough to give an even exposure for the foreground fruits and vegetables and the shopkeepers in the rear.
As I mentioned, this arrangement forced me to forego TTL exposure control. Instead, I adjusted the flash output for proper exposure at F 2.0 at a distance of 5 feet at 1/32 power and an ISO of 1600. Cissie and and devised a simple working code:
    • Move Closer: If a quick preliminary check showed that I needed a bit more exposure, I'd tell Cissie to move closer. To the subject, that is.
    • Come Towards Me: In this case, Cissie would move in an arc, keeping the flash to subject distance constant. In most cases, I usually simply told her to stay on my left, a habit I adopted to insure proper alignment when using the Nikon commander system, and leave it to Cissie to maintain the proper distance.
    • "Harod's Nose": This is a new one. Assuming that I wanted a butterfly-style lighting on a subject turned slightly away, this command simply means to position the flash directly in front of the plane of the subject's face.
    • Grabbing At The Sky: No words here. Cissie would lower the flash so I could manually increase, or decrease, its output.
      There is one important advantage to working this way. So long as my instructions were clear, I could count on the flash to subject distance being constant, along with the exposure. Side lighting usually offers a challenge to TTL flash exposure because the system tries to reconcile exposure for the facial highlights with exposure for the deep shadows. The result is often a compromise requiring some sort of in-flash or in-camera exposure compensation.

      Photo #2
      Harod's Nose: Here I had Cissie align herself on King Harod nose (Photo #2). You can see that the plane of his face is not overexposed, and that his back was simply allowed to go dark. The blue searchlights in the background, while a little hokey, did help make this image a favorite of nearly everyone who saw it.
      Photo #3
      This shot of a carpenter (Photo #3) was meant to be used as a filler, just in case there was room. Nothing special, but looking back, I wished I had made a shot from a low angle with the wood shavings in focus and the carpenter's face out of focus. Oh well...
      Photo #4
      This is Cissie's favorite (Photo #4). A complete grab shot, I'd have submitted it if there was more context in the background. However, it's low rating on the Happy Scale make that a moot point.
      Photo #5
      This last shot is an also ran (Photo #5). Everything, the bag, the radio transmitter, and the Light Sphere / Cloud Dome combination, worked properly. No happy factor, but the only shot where the rain makes an appearance. Unfortunately, the young man on the left, clear and sharp, pulls the viewer's attention away from the Roman Soldier, the real subject in my opinion. And when the quality is compared to the previous shot, it really looks more like a loser than a winner.

      I missed the faster focusing performance of the DSLR, but wanted to use my fastest glass for what was really a night shoot. My kit contained two bodies with a 35mm 1.4 and an 18mm 2.0. And I like the images that the Fujis make. It may be my imagination, but they seem to perform better at the higher ISO settings than my Nikons. It was a simple matter of fumbling in my bag to get the lens I wanted, but I still felt hampered by the overall slowness of the Fuji.

      This shoot was as much about lighting as it was about the cameras. The bag covered flash, by all accounts, was a success. The radio transmitters did a good enough job, which is to say that I didn't have to resort to the backup transmitter/receiver kit I carried as a spare. Keeping the entire rig under a plastic bag was inspired, to say the least. Shooting a posed group using a CTO gelled speedlight placed up high was a piece of cake. But there was the rain, and my notebook got thoroughly soaked just writing down my subject's names. That's another problem, with another solution. But this dried out notebook may see action again, unless I can find an easier way to work in the rain.
      My final assignment of 2015 was also shot with my Fujis. This time I attempted to juggle three bodies, a messenger bag, and a windbreaker while photographing in the presence of some very large, albeit very gentle, horses from Odyssio.

      Sunday, December 20, 2015

      The Fuji X-E1 In The Field - Part 2

      Photo #1
      Working the Harley Owners Group (HOG) Toy Drive was my second Fuji affair, although the camera’s limitations would become a serious shortcoming. First off, there was the slow synchronization speed (1/180 second). Second, the Fuji’s focusing speed is somewhat slower than a DSLR. But again, the lack of weight of my full kit overruled these performance concerns.

      Photo #2
      Over the years, I submitted a variety of shots for this holiday event without resorting to a picket fence shot. One year, I submitted a shot of a Santa-capped award recipient being honored by his fellow HOGs (Photo #2). And once, I actually submitted a shot showing a “Hog” member with a young child (Photo #3), but only after I spoke at length with her Grandmother. She had just received a brand new Hello Kitty backpack filled with school supplies, a gift from the HOGs.

      Photo #3
      As I mentioned in several earlier posts, photographing young children requires more care. Your child subject may be involved in a custody battle, where any publicity could have some serious consequences. Always, ALWAYS get permission from a parent or guardian before submitting a shot like this, especially when the subject is so easily recognizable, as this happy young lady was in this shot.

      Since so many of my earlier efforts had been made indoors, I wanted to try to get something outside, perhaps with a great sky and some fleecy clouds in the background. Here's where the Fuji's shortcomings began to show up. First off, the maximum flash exposure speed was 1/160th of a second. If I wanted any detail in the sky, I'd need an aperture setting of F16, with an ISO of 200. This is very close to the Sunny Sixteen setting often prescribed in the pre-light meter days. Pushing against that tiny aperture, my flash would need full output at every shot even when used at distances between 7 to 10 feet.

      Photo #4

      B&H Photo
      The flash was held at arm's length overhead, and as an experiment, triggered wirelessly using a Wein Sync-Link. This little gizmo would blow  a "wink" of infrared light toward the subject, which was detected by the forward-facing optical trigger on my Younguo 560 with surprising consistency. I can't say it was 100% reliable, since the flash often failed to fire when it hadn't reached full charge, something resulting from a lot of shooting done  in a short period of time, which obviously something that can't be blamed on the Wein.

      The beam spread of the flash was narrowed a bit, and aimed to the left to favor  the closer subjects. The system worked reasonably well, except for the fireball reflection from the flash in the mirror in the foreground (Photo #4). We'll, at least I knew that if I maintained a constant distance from my subjects, my exposures would be pretty consistent.

      Photo #5

       When young Alex stepped up to the join the others, I knew I had the shot. Placing myself squarely in front of him, I started shooting (Photo #5). Granted, this was a pretty ugly looking box, but the shot served to confirm that my exposure was in the ball park. Now I had to wait for something visually interesting.

      You can see some of the dangers of "choking up" on the beam angle. There is some definite light fall-off on the lower half of the box, something that I wish I could have avoided. But there wasn't time to worry, so I kept shooting, waiting for something more interesting.

      Photo #6

      This shot had some promise (Photo #6), but with everybody looking camera right, the shot fell apart. Again, just keep shooting!

      In the end, I settled on the lead shot (Photo #1), as it had most of the visual elements I needed. The shot isn't perfect: There's some light fall-off at the lower edge, and Alex's face is a bit overexposed for my taste. But this final effort did have my blue sky, and lots of details in the shadows without any blown highlights. It would have been nice if  more Hogs faced forward so that their jackets could lend some context to the shot.

      In retrospect, this two-day experiment pointed out limitations of the the Fuji, insofor as working with flash is concerned. The low flash synchronization speed is a major handicap when trying to face down a subject partially illuminated by hard daylight. I'm not going to discard my mirrorless system any time soon, but will need to think long and hard about how to address the Fuji's shortcomings. Granted,  a conventional DSLR would have faced the same problems, but the capabilities of, say, the Nikon iTTL system gives the shooter flash flexibility that the Fuji will never touch. Granted, I don't fit the Fuji user profile, which is to say that I'm not emotionally tied to the rangefinder form factor of the Leica years. The placement of the controls were copied from an analog archetype, where form may not have followed function, but instead was dictated by the engineer limitations of the time.

      I have to remind myself that Fuji did create the X100 camera with a leaf shutter that could have provided the synchronization flexibility of my beloved Nikon D70s, and my own copy remains relatively unused. I might be better off replacing one of the X-E1 bodies with the X100, but that must wait for another time. 

      Monday, December 14, 2015

      The Fuji X-E1 In The Field - Part 1

      I had two assignments to complete as a particularly tenacious flu infection just started to wind down. I had committed to shooting them, and didn’t want to disappoint either of the organizations involved. One was a promotional shot for a Mommy-Baby class that used strollers as a substitute for a ballet barre. The other was a charity toy run which I’ve routinely covered since I started with the Journal.

      Since I was in my recovery mode, I decided to adopt a minimalist approach so far as equipment was concerned. My reduced kit included 2 Fuji X-E1 bodies, a 35m F1.4, an 18mm F2, and a 60 F2.4 Macro which would double as a short telephoto lens. A Fuji EF-42 flash is stuffed somewhere, sometimes in a pocket or secondary pouch. A notepad and pen, and a single spare battery for the Fuji complete the outfit.

      My first assignment would be photographed in an open exercise room with a low ceiling and white walls, an ideal bounce flash environment. For this, I brought a Yongnuo 560 flash with a supplementary 8-AA cell battery pack. Mounted in the hot-shoe of my 18mm equipped X-E1, proper exposures was obtained at full power, giving an even lighting that would reproduce well. A number of factors began to work in my favor. First, the north-facing windows allowed skylight to reflect off of the hardwood floors, creating some interesting visuals to the image. Exposure required some unusually long exposure times (
      1/15, F 4.5, ISO 200), but the low level of ambient light allowed the brief light burst of the flash to freeze most of the foreground at about 1/1000 of a second, giving me images that were sharp except for some edge blurring created by subject movement.

      In this up close composite, you can see just how much the bounce flash adds to the photo. The darker image on the left was the result of shooting without the benefit of a fully charged flash. This pair reminds me that even with the supplementary battery pack, recycle time will be an issue, especially when changes in expression are fleeting, and frequent. 

      The viewing options provided by the mirrorless Fuji X-E1 gave me access to perspectives that would have been difficult to achieve if I was limited only eye-level viewing. Several of the shots were made from a nearly ground level perspective, using the LCD panel in the back of the body to refine composition. But the down side of this bounce-flashing from a low angle is how often I flashed myself in the face, something that should be avoided.

      In the end, the lead shot was chosen. It had a number of key elements:

      • Engaged Child In The Foreground: Beasts, babes, babies, and blood make for engaging photos, and a young boy, “exercising" with his mother, adds both to the subliminal context and visual appeal. The convergence of the background lines on my young subjects head was purely an accident, albeit a happy one.
      • High Kick: When photographing indoors, we often deal with multiple light sources of varying intensities and colors. The elevated leg does not melt into the background, and helps us make sense of the odd, floating athletic shoe belonging to the woman at the right.
      • Multiple Characters: This particular class was not as well attended as it deserved to be, and I wanted to give the impression that this would be a good place for a woman to exercise while keeping her child close at hand. Three adults can be seen in the photo, the only three students who attended that day.
      I got some feedback from the instructor regarding the image I selected. There were concerns that similar images had been used before, and that the exercise pictured wasn’t “true” to the structured intent of this “ballet barre” class. Valid comments, but from my own experience, nobody remembers an image that winds up on Monday’s Page 18, the landing zone for nearly all of my community event images, with the exception of the subjects portrayed therein. Interest in this class will only come if I can convince the viewer to read the caption, which is in and of itself a tightly compressed combination of explanation and public service announcement. If the image is interesting enough to motivate the viewer to read the caption, my mission is accomplished.

      One final note on flash selection: The head of the Yongnuo 560 is capable of 180 degree rotation to the left and only 90 degrees to the right. This turned out to be a more serious limitation than I had anticipated, as it limited the direction of my light pretty much to camera left. Even the Fuji flash rotates 120 degrees to the right, just enough to move my light to a slightly better position. But it’s minimal power and inability to take a supplementary battery pack make the Fuji of lesser usefulness despite is TTL capability. For this, a Nikon SB900 might prove to be a better choice on future assignments, although the Yongnuo gives a shooter a lot of flash for the money if you're just starting out.

      Okay, this shot makes me grin. I wish I could say I did something to prompt this along, but it was a total grab shot.

      Sunday, December 6, 2015

      2 Speedlights On 1 Body

      Photo #1
      Most people justify the purchase of an item before actually paying for it. In my case, I'll buy first and look for a use later. As a result, I have a lot of stuff that's cool on paper, but often not assigned a function for months, maybe years, after the purchase.

      Take the Custom Bracket Mini-RC. It's a beautifully made flash bracket that positions the speedlight beside the camera and not above it. While it may not be ideal for direct flash, it works fine for on-camera bounce flash, so long as you use the Black Foamie Thing to prevent direct light from spilling on your subject. It's main tributes are its sturdy construction and flat contour, making it both rugged and easy to carry. In this quickly made photo (Photo #1), you can see the flash placement, and how the Mini-RC gives some clearance for your hand to grip the camera. Sorry, but his is a very right-handed thing. I purposely avoided using the diffusion dome, since it reached just beyond the edge of the lens hood and may have introduced some lens flare.
      This is how the bracket would appear if the lens on one's invisible camera was pointing towards your left kidney. The  "dog leg" bend gives you room to properly hold your DSLR in your right hand while the speedlight stays nestled close to the camera axis. Had I added a supplementary battery pack to the bottom of my D600, I could have dropped the flash axis even closer to the lens. I like this model better than my older ones because it has two built-in anti-twist posts, which my older versions don't.

      I had a different purpose in mind. Since I had wireless iTTL control even when the main, shoe-mounted light was both a bounced key light, I could mount a "near axis" speedlight to serve as a fill light. Granted, it wasn't ideal, but I reasoned that if the relative power was kept low enough, the potential "double shadow" would not be noticeable.  

      Photo #2
      In use, the shoe-mounted SB-900 was set to the Commander Mode, and its output (The M Setting) adjusted for 2/3 stops of over exposure. The side-mounted SB-800 was set to at the Commander as Group B (my normal Fill Flash group) to -1 stop of exposure. This was a theoretical difference of 1 2/3 stops, so I was pretty sure I'd get the some sense of the three dimensional I was after. Photo #2 was typical of the indoor, supplemented bounce flash photo I was making.

      Photo #3
      You can see in this cropped closeup (Photo #3) that there is a distinct catch light on the pupil, something I normally don't get with up-close bounce flash. And while I get the shadow detail I'm after, the fill light is still on-axis and liable to become very VERY annoying if I needed to take multiple shots to get a fleeting expression. Count on it, there's nothing like direct, on axis flash to make oneself a pest.

      The system is not without its pitfalls. Whenever bounce flash is used, there is always the problem of color contamination from the walls and ceiling. And while you can correct any tinting in post production, the direct fill light will always be "daylight". Depending of the color of the room, you may get some strange shadow tinting. These classrooms were close enough to "white" to not cause a problem, but I have encountered situations where it has.

      The setup worked well for posed shots, where you make one or two quick photos, usually adding the "uno mas" option after the first shot. Again, when people know they're being photographed, the on-axis fill light can give you a bit of extra detail in the shadows.