Monday, May 30, 2016

Carnaval 2016

Hola! Once again, I made the annual pilgrimage to Carnaval 2016 in San Francisco's Mission District. This would be the first time I went using Fuji X cameras: a X-T1 with a telephoto zoom and an X-100 S with Fuji's proprietary wide angle adapter. The attachment has found a permanent home on the camera, as the 28mm equivalent has proven far more useful, to me, than the native 35mm equivalent.

Love, Love, Love.  The is much to be said about the Fuji X system. Many have observed that because the system is only been around since 2012, there are no legacy lenses to impede this state-of-the-art system. In a word, the lenses, first the primes and now the zooms, are sharp, and coupled with Fuji's history of behind the scenes innovation (They invented Face Recognition Technology for their commercial printers), created a line of cameras that are real people pleasers, rendering wonderful skin tones under a variety of conditions. I have heard some criticism that their interpretation is not 100% accurate, but as a believer that color images are felt more then seen, will say that any errors made are to the good.

Much has been said about the usability of the cameras, and the nostalgic placement of the camera's controls to feel "just right" to photographers who still remember using film. I said in an earlier post that control placement on mechanical film cameras was not always based on practical ergonomics, but on design limitations imposed by the existing technology. Aperture controls were positioned on the lens because that's where the aperture actually was, connections being accomplished by a physical linkage rather that a micro circuit.

Hate, Hate, Hate. So everything isn't strawberries and ice cream. There were some major hiccups in the system, which can traced to the tendency to squeeze more features into smaller spaces. As I've complained about before, putting too many adjustment onto a single, tiny external button can lead to an inadvertent maladjustment.

Read Ken Rockwell's Review by clicking here.
X-T1 Placement Of The View Mode Button: I admit that I didn't read the Instruction Manual from cover to cover, nor did I commit every nuanced adjustment to memory. I don't even have a smart phone to access a PDF version on-line. So when I suddenly lost the ability to use the LCD monitor to see my apertures (Fuji variable aperture zooms don't have F-Stops marked on the external aperture rings), I was forced to confirm my aperture settings through the viewfinder. I concluded that during a shutter-speed change I accidentally bumped the button and put it in Viewfinder Only mode instead of the more practical Eye Sensor mode. I wouldn't sort this out until I got home and check through the manual. See the tiny arrow by the "pentaprism".

Photo Credit: Click here to read the complete post.

X-100S Flash Control. This was a real killer because I rely so heavily on the X-100's ability to synchronize flash at almost any speed, s definite plus when shooting outdoors. This innocuous control allows the user to direct all flash controls to the external, shoe-mounted accessory flash. Pressing this control on the Command Dial gives you access to the six different flash options. I've copied a page from the manual below, and highlighted the External Flash option in yellow.

In real life, it's too easy for the base of the thumb to accidentally press the Flash option on the Command Dial. Now we're in the navigation mode, and a second accidental press changes the option to Auto (The menu circles back to the top of the list) firing of the tiny, built-in flash, which is exactly what I didn't want. Another press immediately following the second moves you to Forced Flash, which is controlling the built-in flash, exactly what I didn't want.

The Tell: Had I been quicker on the uptake, I would have immediately recognized the tell-tale shadow when I photographed the sidewalk. This odd circular pattern is created when the X-100's  built-in flash fires through the "vented" hood mounted on the camera. Yes, I've seen it before, and probably managed to correct the situation through luck, rather than careful research. So twice this oversight  has caused some grief, but this time I didn't resolve it quickly, so I stumbled about, totally clueless. For a while, I was forced to shoot without any sort of flash supplements, which for me is akin to walking about with a stone in my shoe.

Now it wasn't a horrible day, just one that yielded very few photos that I really liked. So using just daylight, I made the photos presented in this post, along with one flash-infused shot.

This last photo was made shortly after I straightened out the flash mishagas. I redirected the flash by using a paper plate reflector. Not a favorite, but simply proof that I corrected my earlier error.

Well, there's always next year...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Color Correction Gels On The Cheap

KEH Camera
I'm Cheap. I admit it. However, if I need something NOW, there's no ceiling on what I'm willing to pay. But while I don't believe in cutting corners where it counts, I'm not above exchanging some tinker-time for a cash savings. Experimentation is a healthy pastime, as it forces one to really analyze the problem at hand if a successful resolution is to be achieved.

Take color correction gels. These innocent sheets of clear, colored plastic are so handy when it comes to helping your speedlight match the predominant ambient light source. Kudos to Nikon for including two handy gels with every SB-800 speedlight, and for refining the concept further with the SB-900 series snap-on plastic filters. Each SB-800 came with a Fluorescent (FL-G1) and an Incandescent (TN-A1) gel which would slip into the storage slot for the wide angle panel and then held in place by the panel itself. Replacements could be purchased only as a kit  which included several other colors.

Gels should be considered supply items, since they will wrinkle from repeated exposure to the momentary burst of heat that accompanies each flash. OEM replacements can get expensive after a while, and the wide angle panel retention setup removed the option for beam angle adjustment*. I got around this by using bits of gaffer tape to held the gel in place, but still kept the "tail" in the slot to properly align the gel. It was still a trick to properly fit the gel, tail and all, and I resorted to keeping an extra speedlight with the Color Temperature Orange (CTO) gel permanently attached to speed things up when time was tight.

When the Fuji system became my camera of choice, I needed to get some of the gel magic on the EF-42, Fuji's own TTL speedlight. Rather than trying to replicate the alignment "tail", I simply cut some rectangular gels and taped them to the face of flash head. If I cut the gels to the right height, they would completely cover the panel and eliminate any white light from leaking past. And since I was going to tape the gels, I simply cut them a bit narrower so that the tape had some exposed surface to adhere to. 

In this photo of the inverted gel (sticky side up) you can see how the tape holds the gel in proper alignment with the front panel. And while it is possible that the heat generated from repeated flash will crinkle the gel and melt the gaffer tape's adhesive, the convenience factor, plus the ease in manufacture, make the rectangular gel a practical alternative way to keep those gels in place.

Sizing The Gels: I went a little overboard on this. At first, I attempted to measure each flash's front plate to get the proper height. After several failed attempts, I decided it would be easier to make a series of templates from some card stock and test them on each flash. I started a 1 1/8" and made one for each 1/16" increment up to 1 1/2 inch, which was wide enough for the SB-900. This proved much easier to do, since  the face plates aren't always perfectly flat. Using the templates, I came up with the following suggested dimensions:

Gel Height
Gel Width
Adorama Flash Point Zoom Li-On
Godox 860 R2, et al
1 7/16 “
2 3/8 “
Nikon SB-24
1 1/2 ”
2 3/8 ”
Nikon SB-25, SB-26
1 5/16 ”
2 1/4 ”
Nikon SB-28
1 5/16 ”
2 1/8 “
Nikon SB-600
1 1/8 ”
1 7/8 ”
Nikon SB-80, SB-800
1 3/16 ”
2 ”
Nikon SB-900
1 1/2 “
2 1/4 “
Metz 44 AF-2
1 3/8"
2 1/8"
Yongnuo 560
1 7/16”
2 5/16 ”

The SB-25, SB-26: These two are the only SB Speedlights that I own that  have a rounded contour on the lower part of the flash head. Since rectangular gels are easier to cut, a narrow strip of electrician's tape was used to flatten out the offending curve. In this photo, you can see the tape, applied by hand to an SB-26 and trimmed with a craft knife, resulting in an almost rectangular window. The arrow points to the new, lower edge of the window.

Fiskars Sure Cut Deluxe Craft Paper Trimmer

Trimming The Gels: The fastest and easiest way to cut your gels is to use some sort of slicer. I use a less-expensive version of this Fiskars paper trimmer. Unlike the traditional paper cutter, it uses a fixed blade traveling on a clear plastic track, eliminating any torquing during the cut. Ruled guides help you align your gels for correctly sized cuts.

Gels In Sheets: You can purchase the gels in sheets. Click on the links to purchase.
  • Rosco Cinegel #3407 Filter - RoscoSun CTO: Converts 5500K daylight to 2900K (Household Incandescent). A tiny bit warmer the #3401. Click here for more information.
  • Rosco Cinegel #3401 Filter - RoscoSun 85: Converts 5500K daylight to 3200K (Type B Photoflood). Click here for more information.
  • Rosco Cinegel #3304 Filter - Tough Plusgreen: Converts 5500K daylight to generic fluorescent. Click here for more information.
  • Rosco Cinegel #3409 Filter - RoscoSun 1/4 CTO. Used to give added warmth to skin tones. I find the effect less than subtle, but will use it when I want to achieve an overall warmth to the photo. A David Hobby favorite, incidentally. Click here for more information.
  • Rosco The Strobist Collection Flash Pack. Tasting Menu? This assortment gives you a speedlight-sized sample of the most popular Roscoe gels. Click here for more information.

The Right Rectangle: You may notice that the measurements don't cover the entire face of the flash. There's a reason. In this composited image, I placed an imaginary "blue gel" over the rectangular region within the panel. By placing the gaffer tape directly on the surface of the panel (see arrows), I can ignore the irregular contours on the sides. If you look back at the sample images of the SB-80 with the CTO gel taped in place, you can see how this all fits together.

Right now I'm in Hog Heaver, or Gel Heaven, since these little bits of colored plastic can be generated by the dozens from sheets. It economical too, when compared with the cost of a pack of the OEM stuff.

Life is good.

*When the Wide Angle Panel is used, the beam angle automatically opens out to 17mm, the widest setting.

Update May 22, 2017: Gel Meltdown: Although it has never happened to me, here's a not too subtle reminder about some complications that accompany attaching a gel directly to the surface of your flash head.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Paper Plate Flash Modifiers

It's a bit odd to include a paper plate as a flash modifier, but after resorting to this film-era technique in a moment of pure desperation, it's a worth while trick to remember. Stuffing one in a side pocket of a camera bag is easy enough, and can often be found on location if there's a buffet table nearby. By holding a paper plate at a 45 degree angle above your skyward-pointing shoe mounted flash you can improve you flash photos with little or no cost.

What It Does:
  • Reduces Red-eye: By pointing your flash head upwards (I assume that you're using a suitable shoe-mounted speedlight), you raise the light source a little farther above the lens axis, reducing the chance of red-eye.
  • Provides Better Modeling: The elevated position helps to cast some shadows on your subjects, adding to the three-dimensional rendering of your image.
  • Increases The Size Of Your Light Source: Resting the plate on the edge of your speedlight does little to increase the apparent size of your light source. Raise it up a few inches and the normal spread of the light illuminates more square inches of the plate, giving you better light wrapping around the edges. 
  • Minimally Decreases Effective Flash Output: You don't lose much light, a good thing when working at longer distances or when you need a short recycle time.
What It Doesn't: 
  • Improve Flash Of Depth: Unlike bounce flash, paper plate light is basically direct flash and subject to the same limitations. All of your subjects must be at the same distance from the flash/camera combination, or there will be noticeable variations in amount of light each subject receives. This shot is evenly lit from left to right, as their distances from the flash are essentially the same.
  • Prevent Hotspots: With direct, on-camera flash, you an expect a hot spot, or specular highlight, appearing on any highly reflective object in the background. Make sure that your subjects and your background as as close to perpendicular to the lens axis as possible. I'm at a loss to explain the single glare spot off the door frame at camera right. But by keeping your subjects in the middle of your composition, you can eliminate the most obvious hotspots at the center.
Viewed from your subject's perspective, the paper plate on the right produces a much larger lighting surface compared to the Gary Fong Cloud Dome on the left. The plate's flat surface produces a narrower light beam than the Cloud Dome, as all of the light is directed towards the subject with little or no light bouncing into the shadows.

In summary, the paper plate can/should be used:
  • Up Close And Personal: When your subject to flash distance is relatively short. This gives opportunities for the reflected light to wrap around the edges a bit to soften and fill the shadows. If you tend to work with wider-than-normal (but not super-wide) lenses, this works well.
  • Photographing Picket Fences: Picket Fences are the typical lineup of subjects, shoulder to shoulder, smiling into the camera.The constant flash-to-subject distance insures even illumination for everybody.
  • Super Compact: You can find a place to put a paper plate. In most cases, you can steal one from the buffet table.
Avoid the Paper Plate when:
  • You Can't Spare A Hand: Obviously, you need to devote your free hand to hold the plate, and if don't have one, you're better off with the Cloud Dome, or even one of the Lumiquest Bounce products.
  • You Need Super Wide Coverage: A 28mm equivalent lens is probably the widest focal length you can use (That's 18mm in APS terms).
  • You Need Style Points: Using the paper plate truly helps you look like Angus MacGyver. However, if you're wearing a tuxedo, the "look" just doesn't make it. The Cloud Dome is so popular with event photographers that using one instantly puts you in the Pro Category.
One final note: Use plain white, non-glossy paper plates. Any color tint will be transferred to your subject. Avoid plates with a St. Patrick theme, as one's subjects should wear green, not appear green.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Certificates of Naturalization At The Paramount

The assignment was to photograph some newly naturalized citizens at the Swearing In Ceremony at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California. I had heard so much about the restoration of the grand movie house, but had never actually been there. For whatever reason, I don't care much for Oakland, probably because I know very little about it, and only visit when I must. This was one such day.

This sketch shot shows you how little light there was to work with. The low angle would allow me to use the ceiling lighting fixture as a background, as long as I could get the exposure under control. With these settings I nearly did, but the long exposure time made for a blurry mess.

1/15 of a second, F 4.0, ISO 3200.
My three Citizen Subjects were identified by my editor, and of the three, I chose this one for a shot made inside of the theater. I knew that I had two exposure planes to contend with: the ceiling mounted wall fixture and my subject's face. It's easier to establish the proper background exposure first, and then adjust the flash output to properly light the subject. You can see in this sketch shot how the shot would look without any flash. 

I gave my subject one of the three small prop American flags I brought for my subjects to hold. It turns out that everyone was given a flag, which explains why my subject is holding two. Final exposure was 1/15 of a second, F 4.0, ISO 3200. I bounced a Fuji EF-42 in the manual mode off of the wall to my left. I don't remember what the output was, but I suspect it was 1/8 power. The color shifted somewhat due to the golden paint given to the walls, but the final result is certainly acceptable. The exposure adjustments made in post production coupled with the three f-stop exposure adjustment are probably to blame for the exposure variations.

Butterfly Lighting: This image was the most pleasing of the dozens I made, probably because of the expression and the Butterfly Lighting Pattern. Notice that she's facing into the light. You can see the highlight on the plane of the face, and the slight shadow created on the left side of her face. Big catchlights, great smile, what's not to like?

This shot shows my subject looking at her Certificate of Naturalization. I submit this photo as an alternative to the "flag" photo because it was presented along with the photo at the top of the post, there might be too much flag and not enough variety.

SB-80 To The Rescue: While fumbling in the darkness of the auditorium, I remembered that the SB-80 in my bag had a Modeling Light Feature. By pressing a button on the back of the speedlight, you have a relatively bright flashlight to help me find my way around in the dark. It's funny because I thought about including a small flashlight, but concluded I wouldn't need it. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

I found out that the Modeling Light feature doesn't work when the speedlight is in the Optical Slave (SU-4) mode. Since the SB-80 was already in the slave mode, the modeling light didn't work immediately. It took a few moments to set everything back to "normal" for it to work. Come to think of it, the little pictograph does suggest that the feature doesn't work when the "squiggly arrow mode", the symbol used to represent the optical slave setting is active.

Oh! So that's what it means!

The Lobby Shot: This shot was made because my second subject couldn't be photographed in the theater itself because she was seated where there was no way to supplement the existing lighting without annoying the entire audience. She was, however, extensively quoted in the article, so a shot was definitely needed. And while I was prepared the photograph my subjects outside, the view from within was too beautiful to pass up. So I made a quick base exposure, and went about finding my subject, which in a crowd this large was no easy task.

When we finally go together, I made a test shot using a Flash Point Li-On Manual speedlight aimed vertically an bounced off of a paper plate. This first exposure was probable around 1/4 power, and as you can see, way over exposed.

By dropping the output to 1/128, I was now in the ball park. I re-positioned my subject in the middle of the lobby, directly in front of the green and gold backdrop.

It might have been fun if my subject and I were surrounded by a larger crowd, but this shot gives a sense of the size of the event. Again, it was lit by bouncing a speedlight off of a paper plate, an odd thing to find in a camera bag. I used it a few weeks ago, and was glad I had it with me, since I couldn't find any of my Lumiquest 80/20s, and I own several.

I like the rendering of the flash tones. I combined a 1/4 CTO with a White Balance setting of 6700K, which appears to have warmed the image just a bit.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Nissin i40 Flash

Photo from B & H Photo.
Gripe grip gripe. OK, I'll stop.

An answer to the shortcomings to the Fuji EF-42 may be at hand, and will be riding in my bag soon, once I become better acquainted with it.

The company, Nissin, offers two different flashes for the Fuji X cameras. The larger i60A / Fuji has not yet hit the market, but the smaller i40 has been on the market since 2014. I saw one at Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto, and purchased it literally minutes after handling it.  The easy access to output controls and the variety of trigger options justified its relatively high price tag ($269.00), which are far and above those provided by the Fuji unit, a flash some people have whispered is actually a Sunpak PZ42x . The outward appearance is the same, but I can't say if the features are. But I digress.

Photo from B & H Photo
When I held the unit, I was taken by the simple layout of the controls. The two most used settings, Manual and TTL, are clearly marked, and the no-nonsense mode dial (left) and the equally clear settings dial right were easy to understand, and unlike the EF-42, allowed for plus and minus adjustments from any given setting. The twin index lights (left for manual, right for TTL) were a pleasant surprise.

Attaching the flash was a snap, but removing it was a different story. It's a little tricky to get off, so just be slow and careful. It reminds me of the proprietary mounting system first employed by Minolta DSLR cameras, which evolved into the current Sony cameras. It suffices to say the system is secure enough, but takes some getting used to.

All current Nikon and most third party speedlights use a combination of a retractable retaining pin and some sort of clamping action on the the shoe itself. The Nissin employs only the retaining pin, and relies on a tighter-than-normal fit between the foot and the shoe for secure mounting..

This is a scan of the official "quick start" instruction sheet. It is probably the shortest instruction manual/sheet I've ever seen, but with the logical control layout, there isn't that much that needs explaining. I wouldn't find out until later that there is a full instructional PDF which you can download by clicking here. If you buy the unit, you MUST download this document!

Manual Zoom Settings Legend
I read the flash's reviews AFTER I made my purchase, in the hope that everyone who purchased the unit gave it five stars and reviews that dripped with praise, thus justifying my impulse purchase. I noted the comments of one particular nay-sayer, the only one who gave it a single star. This particular malcontent cited several shortcomings, which I quote:

"This is an excellent compact flash. Trying to use it wirelessly is not supported wit (sic) Fuji X. Trying to manual zoom is not supported on Fuji X.

I mean this really is totally useless except that it is compact. Otherwise it is not worth the money."

After a moment of thought, I decided that while this reviewer either couldn't type or  couldn't spell, he did have a point. I think his/her complaints were based on Nissin's lumping the Fuji unit in with all of the other variations (Canon and Nikon) which I assume do support  the wireless triggering. The abbreviated instruction sheet (Fuji) includes no mention of either feature, and to believe that it did was an assumption, not an inference, on the part of said reviewer.

Nikon Version - B&H Photo
If you look at this closeup of the i40 Nikon version, you can see the Groups A, B, and C are supported on all four channels. Remember that the Fuji bodies themselves don't support wireless TTL flash exposure, since this feature requires physical coordination between body and flash (controller).

The Manual Zoom feature is truly there, but does not function in the TTL mode. Again, this is explained in the PDF but not the quick-start sheet. And I dare say it would be impossible to figure out by trial and error.

One must still question the validity of a review that starts with "This is an excellent compact flash..." and ends with "...Otherwise not worth the money." As in most cases, there a middle ground that takes both opinions into account.To that end, here's what I have come to believe so far.

To The Good:
  • Compact Size. It is a small unit, almost cute. I totally comfortable mounting it on my (relatively) tiny X-100S.
  • Swiveling Head. The head swivels 180 degrees both left and right.The Fuji doesn't.
  • Dial Adjustments. To go from 1/4 power to 1/2 power, the Fuji has requires the user to move through 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, back up to Full Power, then finally down to 1/2. On the Nissin, you simple rotate the output dial clockwise or counter-clockwise to the desired setting (as low as 1/256 power). The same holds for adjustments for Exposure Compensation.
  • Film and Digital Off-Camera Triggering. This is optical trigger. Good, solid, 1970's technology.
  • Ships With Diffusion Dome. Nissin calls it a Soft Box, but we know better.
  • Easy To Deploy Fill In Reflector. Nice touch - The deflector is rigid and slides out, and in.
  • Manual Zoom. Yes, the beam spread can be adjusted manually, although the quick-start sheet fails to mention it. You need to download the full PDF.
  • Video Light Mode: There is a built in, adjustable LED that can be used to help find your equipment in the dark. While not as good as a flashlight for navigation, it's available.
To The Not So Good
  • Non-Clamping Foot: Flash foot relies on the flash's retaining pin and does not clamp the shoe in any way. This could cause problems with some umbrella bracket cold shoes that can't accommodate the retaining pin.
  • Manual Zoom Limitations: The Manual Zoom settings only work in Manual, Slave Film and Slave Digital modes. Once set, the flash will remember the setting when the flash is turned off. However, if you change to the TTL mode, the zoom function returns to Auto.
  • Pricey: It's more expensive than the EF-42 ($229.99 vs $269 for the Nissin), and WAY more expensive if you can find the EF-42 on eBay or Amazon.

Things That Might Be Nice
  • Zoom Control In TTL:  I purposely narrow my beam angle when bouncing the flash to gain just a little bit more light. Based on specifications, one whole stop can be gained by zooming from the 35mm setting to 105mm, which is the narrowest it will go
  • An Intermediate Tilt Detent Between 0 and 45 Degrees: This a small thing, something that might never be used. But I'd like to see it in a i40 reboot.

Photo from B&H Photo
Another Optiion? The Fuji EF-X20 sports a single dual use (flash output, TTL exposure compensation) like the i40, but doesn't have the tilt/rotate bounce capability, and runs on a pair of  AA batteries. MSRP is around $200.00, which is a lot of money for a good idea with limited options and output.

I liked the idea of a dial adjustment, and would have considered this model, but the increased capability of the i40 makes for a more versatile flash, certainly one worthy of a place in my camera bag. I'll need to get comfortable with the consistency of the TTL mode, but in the mean time, the bounce versatility made it a worthwhile purchase.

Addendum May 3, 2016: For some reason, the manual mode of my  i40 does NOT function on any of my X-E1s. TTL works fine. All modes work on my X-100S and X-T1. However, in manual mode, it worked on a handy D70. Strange.

Addendum May 25, 2016: For a lark, I mounted the i40 on a X-E1 body and it worked! Can't explain why it didn't earlier. but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.