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.