Monday, December 26, 2016

Bethlehem 2016

1/2 second, F 6.4, ISO 2000
It's the time of year when I go looking for an interesting image to announce the coming, and going, of Bethlehem A.D. This recreation of Bethlehem as it might have appeared 2000 years ago.

Minette Siegel, San Mateo Daily Journal
The odd "coming and going" reference comes from several factors. Since this isn't "Stop The Presses!" critical, production for the Thursday paper will start long before I submit the photo Wednesday evening. The earliest publication date would be Friday, which coincides with the last day of the event. Also, a front page article, complete with photos, appeared in the December 21 / Opening Day edition. My photo would be more of a reminder, rather than in invitation, to the event.

In some ways, the photo influenced how I approached the assignment. Since the crafts aspect was used in this photo, I'd have to come up with something that was different, but as interesting, as this image.

Lighting: When photographing at night, fast lenses and high ISO levels make for some interesting possibilities. Open apertures give you speedlight enormous range, or enough light to use a variety of light modifiers. What's more, the light you lose when using a full CTO gel is hardly noticed. Here's an SB-80DX, with a gel, oriented for SU-4 (optical slave) applications. The sensor eye (left arrow) faces the subject, while the triggering flash, mounted on the camera hotshoe, provides enough light to serve as the trigger. It was held aloft by a Lastolite Telescopic Extension Handle, normally used with the Lastolite EzyBox system.

Cissie and I had already determined the "optimal" flash-to-subject distance would be seven feet. As long as she maintained that distance, I could be assured a near-perfect highlight exposure. If the distance wasn't quite right, I could tell her to move closer, or farther, from the subject. Working with a mirrorless Fuji T-2, I could tell instantly if an adjustment was needed.

My on-camera fill was another gelled SB-80DX with the built-in Bounce Card in the up position. I could easily increase or decrease the fill effect at the camera, although I favored underexposure. As I mentioned, the fill light was enough to trigger my key light, a very simple setup.

1/4 second, F 5.6, ISO 3200
Here are two very young Bethlehem "residents", dress in period clothing. Cute kids are always a reliable go-to subject, so I made a quick photo, just to get the ball rolling. Super cute, but not much context. I decided to follow them, hoping for  more compelling image. This shot was Cissie's favorite.

1/2 second, F5.6, ISO 3200
Animals always add appeal, so when my subjects started offering pieces of apple to some horses, I started shooting.While I was pleased with the foreground exposure, the sky was a bit too dark to reproduce well, since there were no "accents" in the background to break up the emptiness. This shot was my first choice.

The Verdict: The lead photo was my final choice. I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't realize the photo had "legs" (potential for publication) until I saw it in post production. It illustrated a different aspect of the event: an opportunity to get a close-up view of a rather exotic four-horned Jacob Sheep with some very long horns, highlighted by my placing my domed speedlight high above the sheep pen. I used on on-camera speedlight with the built-in Bounce Card to cut the output. I didn't want it to over-power to overhead key light. Had I realized the value of shot, I'd have made a second shot with a bit light to improve the shadow detail. Unfortunately, the shot ran in black and white, and really could have used that additional boost of light.

1/4, F 4.0, ISO 3200
Including A Background Light Source: When working outdoors at night, the contribution of ambient light is seldom a problem. I have found that the inclusion of a light source somewhere in the background makes the use of an artificial key light less obvious.It would be easy to imagine that a second spot light, similar to the one see in the background, could be providing the lighting for the foreground. In reality, it's a gelled SB-80, held as high overhead as  Cissie's arms could reach. To get the coverage, she positioned herself about 14 feet away from the foregrounds subjects and increased the output by one F-stop, while I open the aperture one stop, to compensate for my doubling the flash-to-subject distance.

Dragging Shutter: The flash  synchronization in the Fuji was set to Rear Curtain, so the photo would be" made" 1/4 of a second after the shutter was released. Using this technique, it difficult to anticipate what sorts of expressions you'll get when the flash finally goes off. If you look closely at the Jacob Sheep's horns, you can barely see the "smearing" from movement made during the ambient exposure. Getting good expressions and super sharp images becomes a hit or miss affair unless the subjects are told to "hold still until you see the flash". Be be prepared to reject a lot of shots in post production.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Santa Pays A Visit

Every year, we close the Winter Semester with an all-school holiday sing-along, followed by a raffle. The winner gets a gift AND a chance to have a photo made with Santa. The images are posted on-line, and hard copies on display in our office.

There are some quick things you can do if you every find yourself in this situation.
  • Key Lighting: A flash with a fast recycle time is a must, since raffle prizes are awarded at three minute intervals, which isn't a lot of time fumble with lighting. This means you have a very short time to get the shot. If you only have small battery-powered units, get several and trigger them together. The Selens Hotshoe Mount (or the equivalent) is cheap and would work well . If you use two flashes on a Selens, you can cut the recycle time roughly in half, or you can double the effective output if the recycled time isn't an issue. One important reminder: You can use older, high-voltage flashes if you trigger the Selens with an optical trigger/slave. Do NOT risk damaging your camera by using a flash cable to your hot shoe!
  • Fill From The Floor: As an experiment, I decided to add some "floor fill" to lighten the shadows (the proper roll of a fill light!) and to minimize the chance of stray reflections. I used a sheet of mylar-covered foam insulation and clamped an extra flash to a light stand using a modified Justin Clamp, aiming the flash straight down onto the shiny surface.You can see that the "size" of the fill is quite large (above left), and that it feathers nicely off the edges. It does produce a second catch light (above right) which I usually retouch out, but in this case, left in.
  • Background: Any plain background will do, but it would be nice if you can get something with a pattern, or something with a holiday theme. Some camera stores sell inexpensive vinyl backgrounds just for the purpose. You could use a bedsheet if can find a pleasing color or seasonal theme. I used my standard 10' wide fabric background suspended by a background hanger. Make sure to remove as many wrinkles as possible. I tighten up the background using A-Clamps attached to the supports.
  • Distance To Background: The rule is the greater the distance between your subject and the background the better. Unfortunately, if you increase the distance, you may need to add some light to the background or it will be noticeably underexposed.
  • Light Modifiers: You'll get better results if you can use an umbrella or softbox to soften the shadow edges. It should be remembered that Ed Pierce of Photo Vision recommends that the subject to light distance be equal to the diagonal of the diffusion surface.  If you are doing only tight head shots, you can probably use an 3-foot umbrella at a 4-foot working distance. You'll need to keep it fairly close to the lens axis, since the short distance will make the difference in lighting between the left and right side subjects more noticeable. If power is an issue, you can up the ASA, if you must. Don't open the aperture, as you'll need some depth of field to keep everything sharp.
Managing The Shot: Sometimes people just naturally fall into a pleasing pose. The important that all four hands are visible in this photo is. The gift became an important prop, along with the bell in Santa's hand.

I put the subject at camera right because my key light is coming from camera left. This gives the best lighting on the the subject, which will be Short Lighting or Butterfly, depending on where the nose points. I have both subjects face slightly inward. When my subject hugs Santa, it falls together naturally.

Watch The Hands: I try to keep all four hands visible. In Santa's case, I have him "offer" the gift to his new friend, while s/he takes it with one, or two hands. It seems everybody loves Santa, and nearly all of my subjects instinctively hug him. This is fine, so long as the hand can be recognized as a hand and not a lump of something growing off of Santa's shoulder. I would have preferred that there was more hand showing, but it may be a long reach for a petite subject.  As a final touch, turn the gift so that the largest surface faces the camera.

Hair And Eyes: With the first shot, I noticed that my subject's hair partially covered her right eye. I gestured that she should move the hair to the side, which she did, while naturally putting her right hand on Santa's shoulder. Those two adjustments improved the image significantly, so make the time!

Cultural Norms: Certain customs forbid any physical contact between unrelated men and women. If there is any reluctance on the part of your subject,  be prepared with an alternate approach. As long as Santa is clearly NOT overtly touching, you'll probably be all right. You may wish to show the image to your subject, just in case.

Because many of these subjects are not native speakers of English, you can't always make your wishes understood. Be patient, because kindness with a smile is something everybody understands.

In the interest of full disclosure, I used a Nikon D600 with a 70-200 2.8 Nikkor at ISO 100, F 16, 1/160 of a second. I chose a longer lens (most shots were made at 70mm) to minimize the effects of  foreshortening. The flash was a 800 Watt-Second Norman 800D bounced off a Westcott 7' silver umbrella, triggered optically by the radio-triggers speedlight used as floor fill. Click here for some suggestions on how to mount this monster brolly.

Monday, December 12, 2016

My Encounter With Mrs. Murphy's Son

If misfortunes come in fours, I reached my quota on this assignment.

This one was relatively simple, as I've done it several times before. The Golden Gate Harley OwnersGroup (HOG) was making its annual toy run to the San Mateo Medical Center. The toys would be sorted for distribution to hundreds of young patients in San Mateo County. The HOGs were scheduled to arrive at 10:30 am, Harleys a’ roaring, to deliver the toys they collected. They would bring the toys to the hospital's storage area where volunteers would sort them by gender and age appropriateness. Young guests and their parents would be there to sing Christmas carols, eat snacks, and receive a present from Santa himself.

Since my office is on way to the hospital, I left my primary (Fuji) kit, along with my press pass and my list of contacts in my storage closet, assuming there would be enough to time to fetch them on the way to the hospital. Come Saturday morning, I allowed myself an hour to drive from the city, get my equipment, and arrive at the hospital with plenty of time to get a decent shot. As an afterthought, I packed my Fuji X100S with my wide angle and telephoto adapters, plus a singe Metz flash, just in case I wanted to go "minimalist". I chose the Metz because I thought I might need the TTL option.

Bazinga! On the way down, traffic started to slow due to a traffic accident that had just been pulled to the shoulder. This unexpected delay caused me to re-think stopping for my main kit, since I was already carrying a camera and flash. So I decided to go straight to the hospital, leaving my press pass, primary cameras, and assignment correspondence safely locked away. After all, I'd been to hospital many times, and could probably drive there in my sleep.

Not So Fast, Wise Guy! I approached the intersection where I thought the hospital should be, and of course, it wasn't there. I circled the block a few times, to no avail. Was it 37th Avenue, or 39th? Just then, I saw a mail carrier, and asked, "Is there a hospital around here?" Luckily for me she knew where it was, and pointed me in the right direction. I was parked two minutes later.

And You Are...: Walking towards the front entrance, I looked around for somebody who could help me. I specifically looked for somebody who had any of the following: a Name Badge, a Walkie Talkie, or a Santa Hat. I found a person who had all three, and now he and I are walking into the Hospital reception area to meet the event coordinator. Luckily for me, I am presented to Glynis, the Mistress of Ceremonies, who immediately recognized me. This was a relief. Now that I was now "official", I started to get my equipment in order.

Got A Pen? Now I discovered that my minimalist kit was missing a pen and a pad of paper to record names and vital statistics. Instead of running back to my car, I went inside and borrowed a crayon and a page from a coloring book on which to write. You can see that I actually used it. Look closely and you'll see the names of my two photo subjects, written with a pen loaned to me by a better prepared adult.

It was still drizzling, so we all took cover under the awning that covered the entrance. We were now in shadow, as you can see in this test shot. Flash was the only way to make a decent exposure. I decided to bounce the flash from the underside of the awning which was, thankfully, white in color. I tilted the head straight up, boosted the power to Full (manual), and made a shot.The exposure mode was set to Aperture Priority.

1/400, F 5.6, ISO 800, flash bounced off of the awning

I was surprised by the results. You can see from this shot that the flash had just enough power to properly illuminate the foreground at F 5.6. Notice how even the bounced lighting is.

1/917, F 5.6, ISO 1600, bounced flash
Glynis did a great job of keeping the kids entertained while waiting for the HOGs to arrive. Off the curb, she and her friends are at the very edge of the bounced light. The light is still quite even, although Glynis' daughter, at the far right, is overexposed a bit. Had I submitted this image, I'd have burned her in a bit, since she tends to draw the viewer's attention because she's noticeably brighter than the others.

1/699, F 5.6, ISO 1600, bounced flash
Santa finally arrived, and I was able to get this shot as he stood just below the edge of the awning. The flash illuminated his face, while the relatively brief exposure time helped me keep the exposure of the sky under control. It did prove that this bounced flash approach might actually work in daylight if I had could increase my light output using multiple flashes. I had Santa direct his gaze at some imaginary children standing behind me, but after that motorcycle ride in the rain, Santa wasn't at the top of his Ho Ho Ho game! More motorcycles would have helped the background, but only six bikers braved the weather. The rest arrived in trucks and SUVs.

1/1500, 5.6, ISO 1600, bounced flash

Santa was hugged by Kaylee and Connor, the grandchildren of one of the doctors at the hospital. This would be Kaylee's tenth Christmas hug, and with that little backstory, I thought I had the shot. I managed to get a hint of a smile from Santa, which helped the photo along. I thought I had the shot, so I started to think about getting some breakfast. Thankfully, I followed Santa inside, hoping for a better photo.

1/32, F 5.6, ISO 1600, ceiling bounced flash with bounce card
Since I already had permission to photograph Kaylee and Connor, I had them sit with Santa for a quick last shot. I had no time to work the shot, The bounce card provided enough additional light to brighten up the eyes, but not enough to completely over-power the incandescent top lighting.

Back in my office, I realized how much better the last photo was. I was so fixated on the success of the outdoor bounced flash that I didn't notice how little context my first choice had. In fact, that photo was downright bleak. In this last shot, the Christmas Tree and the hint of presents in the background add to the holiday spirit, and was one I ultimately submitted.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Shooting Outdoors At Night

Photo #1
When working at night outdoors, we expect the shadows to be sharp and contrasty, since our minds can easily imagine the effect a streetlight might have on our subject. Hard light is not only acceptable, I dare say it's expected.

The forecast called for showers, so I prepared my monopod-mounted Gary Fong Light Sphere by adding a plastic bag raincoat and utilizing an inexpensive radio trigger purchased on eBay. Some more information on that project can be found here.

Calibration: That's an uptown way of saying "What Aperture at What Distance?" Keeping things simple, I put the strobe/dome assembly on a camera, stood 5' from a non-reflective subject, set the flash output to quarter power, set the shutter speed to the highest flash sync setting, set the ISO to 800, and made photographs, changing the aperture until I liked the results. As it turned out, the best aperture was 5.6. I repeated the operation with the flash at half power at a distance of seven feet, and again got my best results at 5.6. I re-checked my settings outside and got the same results.

Photo #2
 I wrote the two distance/output combinations on some masking tape and attached it to the Dome so Cissie could read them (Photo #2). Her job on this assignment was relatively simple - position the dome 5' from my subject when the flash was set to quarter power, and when necessary, boost the power to half and the distance to seven feet. This worked out well, since Cissie could actually stand behind me and move the light the desired distance by reaching out with the monopod.

I had no illusions about the Dome's ability to "soften" the light. Frankly, when the Dome is used outdoors, it doesn't improve the shadow edges at all. I use the dome for its ability to create a "ball" of light that doesn't have to be pointed. Yes, I lose a lot of light, but now I don't have to worry about pointing the flash in the wrong direction - light goes everywhere, and at pretty much the same intensity.

Photo #3
Dragging Shutter:  I had to photograph these people wearing Christmas light necklaces. This first photo was made without the flash (Photo #3). You can see that the color from lights are very saturated. Adding the flash would bring the foreground into proper exposure, but some of the saturation was going to be lost. Not much you can do about that, but at least we maintained some of the intensity of the greens, reds, and blues.

For this night shot, the lack of detail in the shadows if expected, along with the relatively high position of the Dome. Having a streetlight in the background was very helpful in establishing the contrasty nature of the lighting, making the image entirely believable. It doesn't shout "flash".

Photo #4
You can see that when the flash is added, we get a believable image that allows most of the Christmas lights to be rendered with reasonable accuracy (Photo #4). It just so happens that Cissie was standing to my left, holding the Light Sphere high enough to render shadows similar to those you'd get from a streetlight.

The streetlight in the background was included to help the viewer connect to the high overhead placement of the existing lights. It something of a testament to the effectiveness of the Fuji 10-24mm lens' internal anti-reflective treatment. The lack of ghost reflections (disks of light) is a welcomed feature in any lens, especially in one that I use so frequently.

Equipment Choices: All of these shots were made with Fujis, and I carried three that evening:
  • An X-E1 with my 10-24 zoom lens,
  • A new X-T2 with a new weather resistant 23 F 2.0, and 
  • An older X-T1 with 56mm 1.2 lens.
I didn't realize how confusing it would be to mix the X-E1 with the X-Ts. Whenever I kept getting the eye position wrong. First, I'd get used to the left-mounted viewfinder of the X-E1, then fumble when looking for the center-mounted finder in the X-Ts. In the future, I will mount the wide zoom on the X-T2, and any longer lens (my 35mm or 56mm) on my T1. I my just throw in my Nikon Coolpix A for the relatively rare occasion when I need to synchronize a speedlight to compensate for high ambient conditions.

Photo #5
The Ball O' Light on the end of a "stick" allows me to change cameras by just moving the transmitter from one hot shoe to another, which I did here. This tighter shot was with a 56mm 1.2 mounted on a T1 body. Eye level view helped me get a reasonably composed, tight composition, although the folding chair at camera left didn't help any. I could have justified the odd composition because of the context  added by the Star Wars' BB-8 costume (Photo #5).

Just a reminder: If you use multiple lens/body combinations in the field, you might want to set all of your manual adjustments (exposure time, aperture, and ISO) to the same settings. Fewer things to think about, especially when things start to get hectic.

Photo #6
The movable  "Ball of Light" provided by the Cloud Dome offers many advantages. If we look at the image (Photo #6), we can see that the dominant accent light is coming from behind my subject. If you look at the shadows cast by the chairs and the two spectators in the background, you can get a pretty good idea of where the light is coming from. My flash, coming from high camera left, gives me the modeling on my subjects face. Another interesting side effect is the exposure of the woman on at camera right. While she is closer to me than my main subject, the flash to subject distance is very close to that of the the flash to my dressed-in-white Stormtrooper. The distance was so similar that only a minimum of burning was required to equalized the exposures.
Photo #7
Right Lens, Wrong Body:  I ultimately submitted to lead photo (Photo #1) for possible publication in spite of the too-tight cropping at the top edge. My choice of the X-E1 / 10-24 lens combination was a mistake, because the body does not have a rotating LCD panel. This made low-angle shots a hit-or-miss affair, as I wasn't about to lie down in the mud to make the shot. Photo #7 has a slightly better composition, but no engaging expression on my main subject's face.  Had I used the X-T1 or T-2 body instead, I could have composed the image with the LCD panel rotated for waist-level viewing. This one one mistake I will NOT make again!

Photo #8
Parting Shot: Just as I finished packing my gear, I met Ben and his new friend Santa (Photo #8). I wanted a shot,but didn't have the time to re-assemble my Light Sphere. So I just grabbed a domed SB-80, mounted it, and made a quick trial shot. There would have been time for a better exposed follow-up shot, but as luck would have it, it wasn't needed. Since the exposure was "close enough" and the smile tremendous, I called it a wrap.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Coffee Shop Art Show

Photo #1

To me, the most memorable assignments are when I try some new technique. This assignment involved an art showing at a local coffee shop, and a local artist/realtor who contacted the Editor In Chief about the event. Like a "Catch and Release" fisherman, I had a chance to fish with a new lure.

Even for a straight forward shot like this one (Photo #1) there's room for adjustment. I had my artist arrange his four paintings where the could be seen, but placed there for a reason. As it turned out, he was signing each piece with a Sharpie Marker, so I simply told him to work very slowly. Unfortunately, his face was hidden when he looked down, so I had him look at the upper right hand corner of the painting. This raised his head enough to give the viewer the impression he was deep in thought, a look that helped move the narrative along. The shot was the keeper I ultimately submitted.

Looking back, you can see the effects of some serious foreshortening caused by the artist's right hand and his head being in two different planes. The super wide angle lens (10-24mm F 4.0 Fujinon) obviously exacerbated the situation. Having his forearm point more towards the upper corner would have fixed this. Illumination was provided by a speedlight bounced high and to the right. Camera was a Fuji X-T2.

Photo #2
I decided to re-compose the photo to include some of the ambience of the coffee shop (Photo #2). I thought the ceiling lights would make an interesting background element while giving the photo a sense of depth. There will always be problems when you're surrounded by artists and customers jockying for coveted wall space or a table with a view. This being said, this shot achieved a sense of depth, but was hurt by the intermingling of the light fixtures with the artist's profile.  Unfortunately, I needed him to stand close the artwork to minimize any dead (empty) space in the image. As it was, I was standing by the edge of the sofa and couldn't move any further to the right. Oh well.

Photo #3
Ready For A Closeup: For something a little different, I mounted a 56mm 1.2 Fujinon and attempted an environmental portrait with only two flashes. Placing a optically slaved flash on the seat of a chair directly behind my subject, I manually adjusted the output until I got a reasonable exposure at F 3.6 (about two full stops down from wide open). With this set, the shoe-mounted flash, bounced off of the wall behind me, could be adjusted until the foreground brightness matched the background (Photo #3). This is easier to do since the adjustments are made at the camera, not a flash that was 10 feet away from me.

One issue that did come up: The background flash's low angle created a shadow at the top edge of the picture's frame. In this case I simply cropped it out, but if I really wanted the photo to work, I might have had somebody actually sit in the chair and hold the flash directly behind my subject's head, in effect providing a shadowless ringlight effect. Unfortunately, I didn't think of it at time. Everybody was too busy, anyway. An adoring girlfriend could have been used, had there been one.

Photo #4
What If? As I wrote this post, I had occurred to me that I was working with a two-dimensional background. How might I approach a three-dimensional background? I remembered an unsuccessful experiment where I placed a flash under a Tupperware bowl in an attempted to simulate light from a candle. For this shot (Photo #4), I stopped the aperture waaaay down so we could actually see the bowl.

As I mentioned, this little flash, a Nikon SB-30,  has a built-in optical slave, and even though it's hidden by the plastic bowl, it sensed the main light going off. As before, once I established the proper aperture for the background, I adjusted the hotshoe mounted flash output to balance the foreground with the background.

Photo #5
The final photo wasn't too bad. The bowl did a nice job of diffusing the light, and it's pretty even to boot. It was sitting on a rolling cart so it's pretty high up and closet to the lens axis than if it were sitting on the floor.Too bad the background wasn't more "out of focus", being more distracting than I would have liked. But all in all, an interesting sketch shot, one to remember should a similar venue be presented to me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Halloween 2016

Photo #1 1/250 of a second, F 5.6, ISO 200.
Wow. Halloween and International Day are the big events here at the Adult School. In both cases, costuming is the big thing, whether it be traditional, or whimsical, as they are here. These are outdoor events, so there will be issues with the ambient exposure, which usually means "the sky" when I shoot outdoors.

I decided to travel much lighter than in years past. For cameras, I carried a Fuji X100S with a wide angle adapter, giving me full flash synchronization with an effective full-frame focal length of 28mm.For lighting, I used an Adorama Radio Control manual flash in conjunction with a Lastolite Ezybox 24" softbox held aloft on a monopod. Cissie and I worked out the optimal subject to flash distance of four feet when the Fuji was set to 1/1000 of a second, ISO 200, F 5.6. I believe the power setting on the flash was 1/4, giving me 2 additional stops of exposure if I needed to move farther back.

Photo #1 was made with the Fuji, but at a greater distance than I had planned for. While my aperture stayed at (about) F 5.6, I upped the output to full, and lengthened the exposure to 1/250 of a second to allow for any time lag introduced by the radio transmitter. This insured that I'd get my full blast of light without any clipping. The longer exposure time did allow some of the ambient skylight to add to the the light provided by the flash, brightening the foreground a bit.

For longer shots, I had my D600 with a 24-70mm 2.8 lens. On my hip, a SB-900 with an SD-8a supplementary battery pack in a Think Tank Skin Strobe V2.0. Speedlight exposure compensation was set to -1.0 stop. I was hampered by the slow flash synchronization speed of 1/200 of a second, so I set the exposure mode to Shutter Priority and hoped for the best.. Speedlight Exposure Compensation was also set to -1.0 stop.

Photo #2 Manual Mode, 1/1000, F 5.0, ISO 200

Fuji Heaven. This Fuji shot (Photo #2) could convince anybody that leaf shutters rock. The high sync speed, short exposure time, and the moderate aperture gave me a blue sky with a hint of clouds in the background. There is a trade-off when using radio triggers - shorter exposures will sometimes "clip" the flash, a case where the time lag present in all radio triggers causes some portion of the flash's output curve to occur as the shutter leaves are closing.

Photo #3 Shutter Priority, 1/200, F 9.0 ISO 200, Exposure Compensation -1.0 stop.
The Nikon Take: Using the Nikon with its slower sync speed, I would be forced to use smaller apertures, and potentially shorter working distances.
In this case, the flash only supplemented the existing light from the open sky (The day was cloudy). In this shot, my foreground subjects benefit from the speedlight. People in the background get little, if any, additional light, which helps the foreground stand proud in the shot (Photo #3).

You can see the close-up that a shadow is indeed cast by the on-camera speedlight, but it's relatively close to the lens axis, and therefore not readily apparent. That bit of light does add some sparkle to the bracelets, and pushes the color closer to a warm neutral, away from the cool blue of an open sky.

Photo #4 1/1000, F 5.0, ISO 200
Visual Intuition: I was surprised by this particular photo (Photo #4) because it made me think "sunset". While I told Cissie to lower the light to get some light under the brim of the cowboy hat, it subliminally suggested the the "sun" was low on the horizon. Had I put a CTO gel on the flash, I could have completed the illusion. Alas, we are too soon old and too late smart.

Yes, Halloween was fun, and it seems to get "funner" every year!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

One Hundred Headshots (Eighty, Actually)

I was asked to make some photographs during our first school-wide retreat. This would have been a rare opportunity to make some reasonably good images of the administration, staff, and instructors at a single setting. It didn't quite work out that way, because it was never fully explained to the staff that photos would be made, nor was it made clear what they would be used for. In reality, they were to be headshots for our web page. As a result, many were casual in their appearance, with some men even forgetting to shave (24 megapixels and a decent lens have a way of show the tiniest missteps in grooming).

By the end of the day, I missed fewer than a dozen. Actually, it's a miracle that I got as many as I did, since I was told on Friday that everything was under control and I wasn't needed to make these headshots. This changed on the morning of the retreat, when I was asked to get a photo of everybody in attendance, essentially taking over the job that was not mine to begin with.

I set up a "photo station" consisting of a background, a speedlight for a "kicker" (backlight) and one for a key (main) light using the equipment I happened to have in my car for just such a request. The actual shooting was accomplished by pulling people out of the lunch line, making the photo in about a minute, and returning them to their proper place in the queue. Needless to say, two additional shoots were scheduled to capture those who had escaped the request to be "shot". With the project essentially done (I'm only missing two or three part-timers), I can catch my breath and make a plan for future shoots. Here's the take-away:

Photo #1
Glasses: Glare is a common problem, which I solved by placing my main light (speedlight with a shoot-through umbrella) just above my camera. This gives a soft light which tends to be very forgiving so far as glasses are concerned. I've had far more problems with shadows across the eyes (Photo #1). In the future I'll be sure that my subject's glasses are properly placed, high on the bridge of the nose. Another thing: Since I had not arranged for a fill light, the shadows are fairly deep, as you can see by examining the shadow beneath the jaw. You can also see the effect of the "kicker" light on my subject's shoulders, and on the hair.

Cropping: On my first shoot, I tended to crop  my subject's faces tightly by zooming in. But when working with such a tight schedule, a looser crop would have given me some leeway for cropping in post. Incidentally, all of the shots were made in landscape mode, and cropped square for a purpose: As presented, they are ideal for thumbnails. Cropped to an 8 x 10 aspect ratio, they can be used as an "official", but informal, portrait.

Photo #2
In Photo #2, represents everything going right. First off, I dedicated a third speedlight to illuminate the background. This gave me the option of making the background as light, or as dark, as I wanted it. Next, I positioned a reflective panel just below my subject's face, which gave me enough bounced light to bring detail the shadows below my subject's chin. And finally, I stood on a box to bring my camera to my subject's eye level (she's a good deal taller than I am).

Necklines: Luckily for me, this high neckline forms a natural border to draw the viewer's attention to my subject's face. If asked, I suggest that my sitters wear relative high necklines and jewelry that doesn't dangle too far down. I think that everything came together for this photo.

Portrait Pro: I hardly used this program until now. Basically, the software analyzes the facial features it locates on the image (nose shape, hairline, eyes, exact location of the irises, cheek and jaw contours, and location of the eyebrows), and proceeds to strengthen the jaw line, narrow the chin, brighten the eyes and teeth, intensify the iris color, and remove all hints of texture from the face. Pores, wrinkles, and lower eyelid puffiness are reduced, or completely removed, if you desire. There's the option to dial back the corrections, which I frequently did.

Photo #3
Staying At Eye Level: It is important to stay as close to eye level as possible.This keeps the plane of the face parallel to the sensor plane, and lessens any negative effects from foreshortening. You can raise or lower you shooting position for effect, but this perspective is exactly what you expect if you were talking to this subject, face to face.

Tall Subject, Short Photographer: I had a problem during the first session. I stand 5'6" and was photographing a subject who was 6' plus. Because of the short working distance, I was essentially photographing "up his nostrils". To fix this, I put the camera in Live Preview Mode, and simply held the camera above my head and level with my subject's face. I got the proper perspective without resorting to a stool or chair. Be sure to chimp each shot to be sure that you achieved proper focus. Incidentally, the feature is much improved since my first encounter on the Nikon D300.

If I had it to do over, I would have had my subject (Photo #3) lean forward, towards me, and raise his chin slightly so the plane of the face was again parallel with the sensor plane. This would have reduced the bulk you can see under his chin.

Photo #4
Short Subject, Tall Light: Photo #4 was taken minutes after #3, but with a very different effect. Notice that the shadow cast by the tip of her nose almost touches her upper lip, while the shadow in #3 is in it proper place. The difference? This young woman is on 5' tall, and the young man closer to 6'. This difference of about a foot  essentially raised the light source an equal amount, resulting in a much longer shadow.

Interestingly enough, the light was still in a position to provide some very bright catchlights. I was thankful for that, but am bothered by how deep my subject's eyes appear to be. I must admit that she happened to be a"blinker", so I started to concentrate on just getting a shot with her eyes open, forgetting to look at the overall appearance of the shadows. Under different circumstances this photo might pass for "art", but not here. I did have somebody hold the reflector under her face, but for some reason it didn't achieve the desired effect, probably due to the greater distance from the light source. Portrait Pro took care of eye puffiness, but couldn't do anything for the lids.

Photo #5
Tight Crop, Loose Crop: Towards the end, I favored a looser crop, feeling confident that 24 megapixels would give me all the detail I wanted, even when a landscape image is cropped portrait. In Photo #5, I decided to keep the Nike Swoosh and the American Flag in tact, as their inclusion gives you insight into the subject's athletic lifestyle. It could be re-cropped to better match the rest of the headshots, but that's an option I'll not exercise for the time being.

Posing: For this shot, I asked my subjects to lean forward slightly. I provided a table in front of them to steady themselves with. By having my subjects tilt their heads up, I was able to improve the appearance of the neck and chin.

Bifocal Lines: I was careful to position the head so that the bifocal lines didn't cross the subject's eyes. I'm still amazed at the level of detail I'm getting from the D600 and the 24-70 2.0 Nikkor. This wouldn't have concerned me during the film years. Amazing.

Photo #6
Kinky Pearls: This was the last shot made of the staff (Photo #6). She wasn't planning on being photographed, so she wore jeans and a black long-sleeved tee shirt complete with the name of a favored soccer team. I found a string of costume pearls I had used as a prop and had her put them on. Unfortunately, the were not properly strung and kinked at some of the knots, giving a broken appearance. Had they curved naturally, they would have made a perfect frame for her face while adding a touch of elegance. The placement of the kicker wasn't optimal, as her shoulders received not light at all. It's a hard thing to adjust on the fly, and when I ran out of time, I decided to just accept it, and be better prepared for the next time.

I learned a lot about the mass-production aspect of making headshots. And while I'm not looking forward to doing this again, I certainly feel better prepared.