Sunday, April 24, 2016

Image Making, Story Telling

Sad to say, I still miss the forest for the trees when choosing which photo to submit. A photo from the 90th Anniversary of our local NAACP chapter wouldn't normally run on the front page. However, a respected attorney, a local school district activist, and a former district Superintendent do make for a great local angle.

My tale of woe is actually a tale of two stories. The first involves the keynote speaker at the 90th Anniversary of the NAACP's San Mateo Chapter, an attorney active in civil rights issues. The second involves a local educator and activist receiving a Community Service Award. Because of the two separate events (the speech and the award), I submitted two photos, one for each event.

Some speakers are easier to photograph than others. The facial expressions and hand gestures that we watch every day are often unflattering when captured at 1/125 of a second. And without the spoken words, synchronized withe the gestures, those captured moments can look a bit awkward. There were only a few shots that were were acceptable, this one being the best. "Burning" the name by the podium added a bit of detail. The half-face of the woman in the background was extremely distracting.

This next shot was meant to focus on the award recipient and the former Superintendent. Again, it was submitted as an 8x12, with the assumption my editor would crop it to an 8x10 or 8x8 format.

I normally submit my images in a 8x12 format so the editor has some extra real estate in case a wide photo was needed. An 8x10, or even an 8x8 might have been better, but that's for my editor to decide. Still, it was the best of the group, so I submitted it.

You can see that these two croppings, 8x10 and 8x8 put the emphasis on the presenter and the recipient. The last 8x8 cropping would make a fine image for a gift, providing you can sill find a square frame.

When my editor saw the uncropped 8x12, she immediately wanted to know if I had a shot showing more of the speaker on the left. After looking through my other images, I found one that might work if properly straightened. I cringed a bit at the clipped left edge, so I closed my eyes and sent it. A few moments later, I opened my eyes and saw her response: "Oh, perfect!".

The Image Maker in me fixated on the empty space the separated Subjects #1 and #2. And with so much of Subject #1 missing, submitting it would have violated my fundamental rule about keeping as much of the subject's profile in tact. But the Story Teller had to acknowledge that in spite of the composition, Subject #1 was the keynote speaker, and therefore an important part of the event.

This event was yet another reminder to keep an open mind and sharp eye out, especially the details that help the story forward. Hopefully when I'm on my next assignment, the lesson will stick.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Finally: A Camera Bag That Works!
This bag may be the answer to my prayers. This bag, the Vanguard Veo 37, has been a near-perfect match for a shooting style that includes off-camera and multiple flash applications. It is closer in capacity to a messenger bag, with enough height and width to carry a small laptop. But the big sell isn't what you see from above. It's what you see from below.

If you examine the illustration at the top of the post, you can see a tripod pocket that can be accessed through its own zippered flap. It occurred to me that there might just be enough space to hold a Zumbrella and some sort of abbreviated hand-held
extension for a umbrella bracket..

Close examination of the on-line image showed the tripod was a Vanguard Veo 265CB. I checked the specifications, and it has a collapsed length of 15.4". I measured my Zumbrella, and found that it would just fit into tripod compartment. In the photo to the left, you can see my Canon Chestpod with a Westcott umbrella bracket which I chose because of the relatively small knobs. Anyone who is familiar with the Westcott bracket might notice that the umbrella retaining screw has been replaced by a plastic handled T-screw, which helps me get a better "bite" on the umbrella shaft. It happened that the original umbrella retaining screw was 1/4 x 20, so the swap was super simple.

Umbrella Shaft Length: If memory serves, the Westcott umbrellas are a tiny bit long for the pocket, which meant that the shaft would have to be shortened before it would fit. When you have to saw the shaft, here are two reminders: Use a fine-toothed hacksaw blade, and be sure to shove a wooden pencil into the shaft. This additional support will make the shaft much easier to cut. And don't forget to file down the end of the shaft so that there are no sharp edges to tear at the bag's lining.

Better To Have...: I'm a big believer in the old maxim, "Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it" is most apt. Since I've started carrying this bag, I have yet to actually use the Zumbrella rig on an assignment. There are two possible explanations. First of all, I've started to use "environmental bounce flash" whenever possible, so finding soft light is usually not a problem. But secondly, I don't have an automated system for use with an off-camera speedlight when I'm using Fuji cameras. I can get automated bounce using a camera mounted EF-42, and if I have the time, using a manual speedlight. I still want SOMEBODY to make a decent off-camera TTL speedlight system that works with the Fuji, and when it comes, I'll be much more likely to use the Zumbrella once again.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Nikon SB-80DX Hidden Features

I mentioned in an earlier post that I now carry two Nikon SB-80 DX speedlights in my Fuji XT1 kit. This may be considered overkill, since a Fuji EF-42 is always nearby should I need true TTL exposure. But the SB-80DX has proven a useful companion for a number of reasons:
  • Built-In Optical Sensor: Like the SU-4 mode in the SB-800, you can trigger optically using another flash.
  • Non-TTL Exposure Automation: I could use the built-in aperture based non-TTL exposure automation for run-and-gun (fast moving) situations. It's not as sensitive as true TTL, but it will work at short distances.
  • SB-800 Form Factor: The body and head dimensions are nearly identical to the SB-800, which I find compact and easy to use.
  • Lever Locking: The SB-80 has the same single lever locking mechanism as the post-SB-800 speedlights.
  • Higher Profile Selector Buttons: Selector Buttons are easier to find, and feel, in low light conditions.Their raised contours make them easier to adjust.
  • Supplementary Power: Accepts SD-8a supplementary battery packs, and SD-8 packs upgraded to the SD-8a cable, a service that Nikon no longer provides.
  • Accessories: Flash head accepts SB-800 diffusion domes, both Stofen and OEM.
  • Gels: Head accepts SB-800 OEM color correction gels.
  • Modeling Light: The SB-80 and SB-800 have a Modeling Light, which is in reality the ability to fire a burst of flash "pop" to give the illusion of a continuous light source. Think of it as a emergency flashlight.
Cool Stuff: Here are some features that aren't so obvious:
  • On Camera / Off Camera Sensing: I noticed that when I set my SB-80s to the optical slave mode, they would automatically revert to on-camera mode when slipped into a camera's hot shoe. Now I leave the speedlight in the remote/slave mode, knowing it will re-set itself as soon as it's attached to a hotshoe of some sort. This worked with both the Fuji and the Nikon cameras. Not so with the SB-800, however.
  • Distance Indicator: This is the big one. As you decrease the (manual) flash output, the SB-80 displays the flash-to-subject distance for optimal exposure for your pre-selected aperture (see arrow). While this is based on an exposure made in a standard sized room with a white ceiling, it's close enough to serve as fill, and will get you in the ballpark when using the speedlight off-camera on a light stand. The emphasis here is on ballpark, because you'll either want or need to fine-tune the exposure by adjusting the flash-to-subject distance anyway, which is much easier than lowering the speedlight to eye level and pushing some buttons.
Some Cautionary Notes: Here's as good a place as any to issue some reminders about using non-TTL flash exposure.
  • The Sensor Is Pointed Forward. Period: The sensor is sometimes hard to find, and merely points in the same general direction as the flash head. Best advise is to use your non-TTL flash at shorter distances with relatively large subjects. 
  • The Sensor Is Not That Sensitive: Play with the non-TTL adjustments and you'll find that you'll need to use relatively small shooting apertures. For example, if the ISO setting on the flash is 200, the largest aperture you can use is 2.8. When set to ISO 400, the aperture is 4.0, ISO 800, 5.6. 
  • The Sensor Can Be Fooled: When the Stofen domes are properly used (head facing forward, and 45 degrees from horizontal), the sensor MAY respond to light spill from the flash instead of light reflecting from your subject. The Vivitar 283 may have been more susceptible than most because Stofen actually made a special blinder to protect the sensor's eye. 
  • Weak Batteries, Weak Response: I have found that when the batteries start to lose their mojo, the performance of the speedlight gets erratic. When the output and ISO settings start to wander, change your batteries. This usually does the trick.
The SB-28 shares many of the same features, but has some drawbacks.
  • There's no built-in optical slave. You can always add a Wein Peanut, but built in is just so handy.
  • Different Size and Shape: Ix-Nay on the advantages of a form factor shared with the SB-800. It's close in overall size, but not identical. 
  • Recessed Control Buttons: The most annoying issue with the SB-28 is the recessed rubber control buttons. You almost need  a pencil to make the necessary adjustments, and certainly will if you want to make a test flash.

I know of my penchant for acquiring older Nikon speedlights. I don't even know how many I actually have. But I still get a thrill of seeing a multiple-speedlight solution create an abstract reality that washes over my subject, whether it's done with gels, definitive shadows, or deep, richly detailed shadows. It is so different from when a single on-camera Vivitar 180 flash was all I had to work with, so many years ago.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Balancing Flash Output To Ambient Light

I was assigned to make a photograph at the San Mateo County Bar Association's 100th Anniversary dinner. I had contacted the event coordinator and asked for a "Bride, Groom, Maid of Honor, Best Man" grouping, which is my way of saying I wanted only the most significant participants from the event.

Cave Photography: I often photograph in venues that aren't well lit, but this location was as dark a setting as I've ever seen. There was enough light to eat by, but not much more. I scouted a suitable location for my shot, and found a position that provided an interesting background in front of me, and a slightly warm bounce surface behind me. Next, I made four exposures to help me visualize the background. This is done without flash, since I wanted to establish a base-line exposure.

With an aperture of 5.6 and an ISO of 800, I made four exposures at the following settings:
  • Upper left: 1/80
  • Upper right:1/16
  • Lower left: 1/8
  • Lower right: 1/2
Making these four exposures helped me decide how much detail the background lights would add to the photo. The long exposure times are not a "free pass" when you combine speedlights into the exposure mix.

From my last exposure settings, I photographed my hand to see the amount of ambient light on my subjects faces.This photo showed that the ambient would add to any additional light from the speedlight. When I saw how warm the lighting was, I changed my White Balance setting to the Incandescent preset and made mounted my SB-80 with the CTO gel already installed. By taking a quick "selfie", I established a starting point for my image.


Here's the final image once again. You can see enough architectural details lit by the existing lights.But the long exposure time does have some side effects. You can see the blurred people moving in the background. What's worse is the bleeding of the ceiling lights into the edges of some of my subjects. Look at at the enlargement below, and you'll see what I mean.

Notice that the ambient light is adding to the shadows created by my speedlight key light, My incandescent compensation (gel on speedlight and Incandescent white balance preset) lighting should rendered more neutral skin tones, in spite of the walls being warm-toned (just enough to be considered off-white in color). I could have avoided this be simply decreasing my exposure time, but I would have lost a great deal of ceiling detail. I tried imagining the photo taken at 1/8 of a second, and was not to pleased at the prospect of a background that could pass for a "galaxy of stars".

In case you wondered, this is Marsha, my harshest critic. A San Mateo resident, she does peruse the San Mateo Daily Journal, and when the photo finally appears in print, I'm sure she'll see it, and through her thoughts and actions, let me know exactly how she feels about it lining the bottom of her cage. She pretty much has the same reaction to all of my work.

So be mindful of the contribution any existing light will have on your flash-lit photographs. There is a point where the color contamination may well ruin you photograph. Just be prepared to make some modifications on the fly, and be thankful for that little LCD panel on the back of your digital camera.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Telephoto Lenses - A User's Primer

As a young photographer, I was fascinated by telephoto lenses. Perhaps it was from watching too many wildlife shows on PBS. It would be many years before I'd appreciate long lenses for their perspective-flattening qualities more than their ability to photograph at much longer distances.

I was asked to comment on using telephoto lenses in the field.  There are several factors that must be understood it long lenses are to be used successfully.

Variable Apertures: It is less expensive to build a variable aperture zoom lens than one where the aperture remains constant throughout the zoom range. Shown here is my Nikkor 75-300 AF lens, easily obtained for $100 - $130 from eBay at the time this post was written (I paid considerably more when I purchased my specimen from a local dealer a few years ago, but it was still a bargain). Today, the lens is less popular that it was when it was introduced in 1989 because it's an AF (not an AF-S) lens, meaning you'll need to focus manually with the D3xxx and D5xxx series Nikon bodies. Second, its push/pull trombone zooming mechanism (supposedly) "inhales" dust into the lens' interior. And third, the front element rotates while focusing, annoying if you're trying to use a polarizing filter.

Notice the official designation (see photo, above), which means:
  • If you use the lens at 75mm, the widest aperture available is F4.5.
  • If you use the lens ate 300mm, the widest aperture available is F5.6.
Notice that there are three focus indicators: This lens is not a true zoom, but a Variable Focal Length Lens, meaning that at different focal lengths, the plane of focus shifts. This isn't apparent when the lens is used normally, but in the rare instances when you need to know the camera's to subject distance,  you'll need to select the distance index appropriate to the focal length.

To prevent some unexpected aperture changes during zooming, think of the lens as a 75-300mm F 5.6 lens, and set the aperture accordingly.

Telephoto Lenses And Maximum Exposure Time: There was, and is, an old rule regarding the longest possible exposure time for any lens when hand-held. The rule is as follows, with as modification for the APS sized sensors found on most digital SLR cameras:

Longest Safe Shutter Speed = 1 / (focal length of lens * 1.5)
                    = 1/(300 * 1.5)
                      = 1/450 second

At longer exposure times, the effects of the photographer's shakes and tremors become visible. This does NOT take into account your subject's movement. You could properly freeze a Olympic speed walker or a snail race, but not an arrow in flight. This assumes that you're holding the lens properly, with your elbows tucked close to your body and the top of the camera resting against the bones beneath you eyebrows. Oh, the 1.5 is an adjustment because the APS sensor increases the usable focal length of the lens.

Joe McNally posted "Da Grip" a while back. Check it by clicking here.

Vibration Reduction (VR): Vibration Reduction (Nikon), or Image Stabilization (Canon) is an important feature, especially when using longl lenses. Call it magic, but it allows a steadier platform for the shooter working with with longer exposure times.The improvement provided by VR is often expressed in stops. For example, let's say we have a lens that when VR is engaged, it provides a 2-Stop improvement in performance. In the world of long lenses, it means that if your exposure dictates an shutter speed (exposure duration) of 1/125 of a second with VR off, you should achieve similarly sharp results if your exposure time was 1/30 of second, or four times as long. If you gain these two stops, you could shoot at an aperture two sizes smaller for more depth of field, or a lower ISO setting for improved quality.

This is not an absolute: In a discussion on lens choice,  David Ziser reminded us that VR or IS is not a guarantee of sharper images; It simply improves the probability that you image will show less degradation due to photographer tremors.And some reminders: VR must be turned on if it's going to work, it may not work properly when the camera is mounted on a tripod, and decreases battery life.

Now What? If there is a legitimate reason for not setting your aperture and shutter speed manually, I would suggest the following procedure:
  • Set Your ISO: Chose an ISO to start. I would start at ISO 400.
  • Set you camera for Aperture Priority Exposure Automation: This allows for exposure automation with an aperture that you select, and the ability to choose a high ISO value for the corresponding decreased exposure time.
  • Select Your Preferred Aperture: If I were using this lens, I would set it to 1 F-Stop down from 5.6, or F 8.0. My reasoning is that lenses are seldom sharpest when used "wide open" (at maximum aperture), and by stopping the lens down one stop boosts the performance a bit.
  • Make A Test Shot and Check The Exposure Time: After making a test exposure, check to see how the camera responded. If the shutter speed selected is 1/450 of a second or briefer, you're good to go. If not, go back to the first step and up the ISO another full stop, and repeat.
In The Field: When using automated exposure mode, you'll need to use the camera's Exposure Compensation feature to bring the exposure exactly where you want it. Remember that changing the aperture will have no noticeable effect on the overall appearance, as the shutter speed will adjust up or down, following your aperture choices.

One final suggestion:  If possible, get a shooting position where the sun lights the subjects from the front. Fighting for shadow detail with most telephoto lenses is a loosing battle due to physical limitations associated with long lenses.