Sunday, January 29, 2017

Carolyne Zinko:The Gala Life

Carolyne Zinke (left). Read article here.
On Sunday, January 22, I read an article written by Carolyne Zinko, a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle in the Style Section.I read here article on what it's like being the style writer on the opening night of the San Francisco Opera.

I actually read the Style Section, especially after I've photographed a charity event for the Journal where the "movers and shakers" were present. I guess I'm curious to see how other, more seasoned photographers handle the situation, every mindful of one important difference: My job is to submit the single photo that will, in some way, illustrate the visual excitement created by the designers and decorators within the venue, while giving proper recognition to the Chairpersons and Donors who made it all happen. Style Section photographers function more like Event Photographers, but in addition to  providing documentation of who showed up, they must also provide details on who wore which designer gown. Eventually this album of photos will be posted to a blog site devoted the the event, or made available for sale by the photographer, a la Drew Altizier.

A portion of her January 22 essay has been reproduced here. Warning: Ms. Zinko wrote in the third person.

  • 5 p.m. Showtime. As guests climb the steps at City Hall, pull aside ladies with intriguing gowns, hairdos or smiles. The Chronicle photographer has just seconds to take a photo that’s in focus, lit properly and (we hope) is flattering. Guests greet one another with a European double-cheek kiss, exclaim how fabulous they look and inquire how they’re doing. The disconnect now begins. Zinko, you see, is not there to socialize. She is positioning ladies for photos and taking notes on their gowns (and if they’ve forgotten the designer, unzipping them slightly to check the label). While you chat with her, people are walking by — other people in gowns that need to be photographed. Zinko and the photographer must make haste! Is she ditching you? No! But if she misses someone the editor wants her to get, she will be in trouble the next day. So she becomes brusque to cut out the chitchat and speed things along. When she is stressed, she barks, it’s true. But she does not bite.
If there's a point to be made, it's that professional photography is a rush-job proposition at all levels. Back in the film days, a one-week turn-around time was considered speedy. Now, everybody expects immediate feedback on everything digital, and it also applies to photography. Read what else Ms. Zinko has to say.
  • 6:30-9 p.m. While others are dining, and later, watching the gala night performance, Zinko and the photographer are sitting in the press room, eating hummus and carrots. They are captioning photos that are uploaded to The Chronicle’s website within minutes. She is also tweeting her own photos and posting to Instagram to spread the night’s glamour on social media. Hurry, hurry, hurry!

  • 9 p.m. At intermission, it’s time to hunt for more gowns that haven’t yet been photographed. It’s back to the press room for more captioning during the second act.

  • 10:30 p.m. At the after-party, we hunt for more gowns, and stay to the end, in case news breaks out — like the time someone pulled the fire alarm during the Symphony gala (oddly enough during Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite).
  • 12:30 a.m. Back at The Chronicle, Zinko changes into sweats and starts typing. The story is due by 9 a.m.; better to write now than drive home and write in the morning, lest she sleep through an alarm.

  • 3:30 a.m. Bleary-eyed, Zinko drives 30 miles home.."
The behind the scenes details are often overlooked. After all, if your images travel at the speed of electricity, shouldn't the images be delivered just as quickly? I can speak for the style section, but every image I submit for publication must be as perfect as I can make it, in so far as exposure and white balance (the rendering of whites as truly white) are concerned. Beyond that, pretty much nada. So far as deadlines go, I can remember only two instances when they "stopped the presses" until I could submit the image I was sent to get. The image had to be in by 10:00 pm, and after that, I was homeward bound, the mission accomplished.

But wait. There's more.
  • 9:30 a.m. Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey. After five hours of sleep, Zinko heads back to her desk at 901 Mission, to check proofs, build curated photo galleries and sometimes edit a video to post online. Contrary to popular belief, she does not make the call about which fashion photos go into print. She does not have that power — that’s up to another editor.But she knows ladies are waiting with bated breath to get The Chronicle’s stamp of approval by seeing themselves in the newspaper. So the next time Zinko appears to be giving you the cold shoulder, please reconsider. She is working hard to give everyone an equal chance of getting their picture in the paper, or in an online photo gallery at the very least.

Devlin Shand, Drew Altizier Photography Click here to view the source image.
I viewed the photo galleries from the event, and must tip my hat to both Ms. Zinko and the photographers she works with for just getting the job done. Trust me, nothing is ever as easy as it looks, and those who make it look easy are probably trained long and hard to get there.

I once heard of an aspiring photographer who simply wanted to be told where to go and who or what to photograph. One might have concluded that being a photographer starts the moment the shutter release is pressed and ends when he or she says, "Thank you". It's never been that way for my assignments from the Journal, and obviously isn't that way for Ms. Zinko.

In 2006, I started using Gary Fong's  Light Sphere shortly after its introduction, making me something of an early adopter. Now, some ten years later, you can see that it's still a mainstay for event photography. As you can see, Mr. Shand is using his, as do all the photographers I've seen in Mr. Altizier's employ. It's also used by Katy Winn, a photographer for Getty Images and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.  The Light Sphere makes its appearance at 2:45 in the video. It worked for me in 2006, and it still works for me today.

All photographs are from posts from, the digital arm of the San Francisco Chronicle. The entire article can be read by clicking here.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Long Ago, When Film Was King

Photo #1

Photo Metro, Volume 17, Issue 152, page 46
I found a magazine called Photo Metro in a second-hand store in San Rafael, a town north of San Francisco. The cover indicated that it was Volume 17, Issue 152, and after some careful searching, found that the copyright year was 1998, in a month unknown. The magazine was devoted to the nuances of fine art film photography, and judging from the advertisements on the scanned page, film was still a major presence. The publisher was located at 17 Tehama Street in San Francisco, which Google Street View shows as the garage entrance to a multi-story office building at the edge of "media gulch", an area known for lithographic services, commercial photographers, and I suspect, some film production facilities. Now, I'm sure most of the offices support a variety of dot-comers, most of which probably have nothing to do with imaging.

The page also mentioned the Focus Gallery on Union Street, THE mecca for aspiring photographers, where the "best of the best" had their gallery showings. I was a frequent visitor to the Focus, not so much to stay current with the latest trends but to examine the work of some of the finest craftsmen and women in the world of wet-processed photography. After an afternoon surrounded by exquisite darkroom work, I would go home and try my best to reproduce, in my makeshift darkroom, the richness of the images I had just seen.

After waxing nostalgic for a few days, I remembered that a number of my mounted black and white photos were in my office, as I intended to scan and post them to my blog. After reviewing these photos, I realized that my current efforts were a "reboot" of the work I had done in the last century, which wasn't that long ago. Nearly all of the images were dictated by some class I was taking, but when I was off duty, I chose the persona of the "concerned young photographer" making images to right social injustice, and did indulge in street photography from time to time.

The Chinese Times, San Francisco Circa 1972. "Circa" makes my efforts sound so lofty, but in reality I don't remember exactly when I made these photos. It was for a public speaking class, and I had decided to produce a photo essay on communication.  These photos were mounted, printed, and re-photographed on transparency film to create an analog slide show, which I would narrate.

Photo #2
Photo #3
 Photo #4 
These four photographs were meant to show traditional typesetting with the added complication of inserting the mirror-imaged lead Chinese characters, right-side-up and in reverse order, in a composing stick, which is a small adjustable tray for holding enough characters for a short article. In Photo #3, you an see the typesetter holding a composing stick while he positions the appropriate character. In Photo #2, you can see two typesetters standing besides the trays, or cases, of the cast lead characters.

One thing that I miss in my digital work  is the deep,  rich blacks found in my wet-processed prints. At the time, my use of black and white film  was from economic necessity, plus the fact the nearly all of my photographic heroes were photojournalists, and were nearly forced to use black and white  because color films weren't sensitive enough for indoor and low-light work. Reliable automatic flash hadn't been introduced, and without a way to preview one's test shots, establishing proper exposure was a crap shoot, at best. For critical color work, one might be able to use a special Polaroid camera to provide an accurate preview of the results of your best-guess exposure, but that wasn't particularly practical on a limited budget. The built-in meter on my Pentax would just have to do.

In reviewing these early efforts, I realized that my exclusive use of digitally-rendered color imaging forced me to "over-light" my images. Highlight and mid-tone exposures could be addressed in a similar fashion, but when it came the under-exposed shadows, the colors were often muddy and indistinct. With black and white, I could manipulate the image until my shadows were totally black, with only the tiniest hit of detail. The shadows became a strong graphic element, providing a landing point for the viewer instinctively seeing the brightest part of the image (Photo #4).

Photo #5
I like to think of this last shot (Photo #5) as an illustration of the start of a typesetter's next job. Clearly, the "story" is already written out, properly aligned within the Chinese literary structure, waiting for the proper characters to be withdrawn from the appropriate compartments and positioned in the composing stick.

It was fortunate that I was still in my Natural Light phase, where I utilized only the existing light. The quality and intensity of light varied a great deal, and I remember exposing my rolls of Kodak Tri-X film at an ISO rating of 1600 and carefully processing each roll in Acufine film developer, the preferred "soup" of the day.

Considering the limitations of film, equipment, and my own expertise, I was fortunate that the medium allowed me great interpretive latitude in my intentions. For the most part, played the shots "where they lay", and used the simple techniques of dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) regions of the photo to achieve the desired effect. In this shot, the dark shadow regions are acceptable, especially with the removal the influences of color.

Photo #6
Street Photography (Photo #6): These were more random shots made in the simple act of living in San Francisco. I used an Olympus 35 SP at the time, a camera very similar in layout to the Fuji X100S I often use. Funny how the ergonomics have gone full circle, perhaps as a nod to the designers of the Leica M series of cameras, who appear to have gotten it right so many years ago.

Believe it or not, there was a time when you could point a camera at child and photograph him or her without arousing suspicion. I had forgotten about this young child, carefully blowing his perfect bubbles in a San Francisco neighborhood. His mother probably didn't give me a second thought, since "cute kids" were always fair game for photographers in this simpler, more civilized time.

When I photograph a child for the Journal, I try to locate a parent or guardian before I get too involved. Actually, just pointing a camera at a child will quickly arouse some attention, so I just look around to find the adult who seems the most concerned. At that point, I'll introduce myself and the explain why I found their child so irresistible. I also add that my editor determines whether the photo is selected for publication, which allows me to be less specific about if, and when, the photo will run. I'll offer to send them a JPG only if they'll contact me via e-mail, which 95% of the time they don't bother to do.

East-West -San Francisco's Bilingual Newspaper (Photo #7): I don't remember how I got involved with East West. But this was my first published newspaper photo showing a Chinese cooking class in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Photo #7
To a great extent, this photo embodies the qualities I look for in a photo: Sharp focus, even illumination, and visual interest from front to back. Also, I try to have the subject involved in what's going on, which based on her downward gaze, she clearly is. It ran on the paper's front page, which is actually the back page when read with Western eyes. An honor all the same.

In some ways, this photo started my lifelong interest in flash photography. This image could not have been made had I relied on the ceiling lighting along. The soft light suggests florescent tubes, with only a slight fall-off in brightness from front to back. No flash automation was available at the time - I had to estimate the distance from the flash to the ceiling and back to the subject, calculate an exposure based on this distance, and add an exposure factor, usually two stops,to compensate for the light absorbed by the bounced surface (ceiling). Luckily, close enough was good enough, since I could usually depend on my enlarging technique to get the exposure where it needed to be.

New Schools Program, San Francisco State University: This twelve-unit class was designed to introduce a "select" group of students to the Integrated Classroom concept of education. Simply put, art, math, and language arts would all be integrated into the curriculum to infuse interest, participation, and relevance into the classroom. I documented the activities as my class project, a sneaky dodge on my part. I compiled an album of my best photos and presented it to my instructor in lieu of a term paper. When she retired from the University, I assume it was discarded, never to be seen again.

Photo #8
Life Masks (Photo #8): Life masks were all the rage at the time. Part art, part craft, and part trust exercise, as the cold, wet, strips of plaster netting layered on the subject's face felt as cold and dank as death itself.

I remember showing this print to some of my fellow students, and the response was very positive.
Many added that the sensation of being probed by multiple, unseen hands was a little creepy, probably because they could not see what was happening as the plaster was applied to their faces.

I could never have preserved the texture of the plaster if I relied on the limited experience I had with flash at the time.

Shadow Puppets (Photo #9): This was a highly manipulated shot because of the extremes in highlight and shadow.  I was pleased with the overall effect of the photo, particularly the expression of concentration of the student and the "cause and effect" of the puppet on the projection screen.
Photo #9
Photo #1
Sad Bear (Photo #1): The New Schools class was on a field trip to the San Francisco Learning Center, a resource collective for elementary school teachers. I swear, this is exactly how I found the bear, and the shaft of light was simply luck.

Thankful.  In so many ways, I've been most fortunate in having done my photographic apprenticeship with film and a limited budget. Film teaches you that every shot counts, since a film change at in inopportune moment can lead to missed shots. The development of film and the subsequent printing of images forces you to "get it right" the first time, since the time between the execution of the shot and production of the final photo makes it almost impossible to arrange for a second sitting or a reshoot. And finally, working with older flashes forced me to really think about light bursts that were so fast there was no way I could really anticipate the results. One had to be resourceful, since so much of the equipment was simply not affordable.

I still marvel at the incredible capabilities the modern digital camera possesses, and the freedom I have from the droll tasks of determining proper exposure or even establishing proper focus. The instant preview capability provides me with a base from which I can experiment freely and not be hampered by the temporal limitations imposed by film. I hope to continue experimenting, taking full advantage of the digital world, with the hope of recapturing some of the esthetic joys my black and white prints gave me so many years ago.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Fuji EF-X500 - Hands On

Well, I couldn’t stand it. The possibility of a “professional level” shoe mounted flash was too much for me to resist. When I got the call from Fireside camera that the new EF-X500 flash was in stock, I went down and bought one. Click here to read the factory specifications.

My observations are based on my playing with the unit in my office, although I plan to deploy the unit as soon as the accessory battery pack arrives. There are some useful features, combined with some unusual quirks.

Click here to read the full post.
Control Layout: The flash is controlled through a series of three "pages". Pressing the Page Button (Down Arrow, left) allows you to shift from page to page. Each page has a maximum of three options, each with a corresponding button below the option label.

Page #1: Flash 1
  1. Mode (TTL, Manual, LED)
  2. +/- Exposure Compensation
  3. (blank)

Page #2: Flash 2
  1. (blank)
  2. Beam Pattern
  3. Zoom

Page #3: LED
  1. On/Off
  2. Intensity
  3. Auto Focus Options

For the record, the photo shows the flash in the Commander Mode, with Groups A, B, and C in the TTL mode with no exposure compensation, transmitting on Channel 1. Selections from within each of the three options is accomplished by rotating the command wheel (Right Arrow, left). Basically, the setup is very similarl to Nikon's Creative Lighting System on the SB-9xx speedlight platform. This is a definite plus, although I doubt I'll make the plunge and go full wireless with my Fuji system.

First the Good

  • Control Layout:  The flash has a selection switch that is nearly identical to the Nikon SB-900. The four-position rotating switch  allows for off-on-remote-master. A button at the axis of the switch serves as a lock to prevent accidental shifts for "On" to "Remote", just like the Nikon.
  • Locking Hot Shoe: The flash locks in place by rotating a lever just above the hot shoe. Much better than the thumbscrew arrangement found in the second tier EF-42.
  • Compact Size: It's only 1/2" taller than the EF-42.
  • LED/ Video Light Capability: The EF-X500 has a variable continuous light setting for video applications, or reading the instruction manual.
  • Case Belt Loop: Here's an interesting spin: The "belt loop" orients the carrying case in a horizontal position, a bit odd for waist carry. But it works well when attached to the carrying strap on a camera bag, a definite plus. It also closes with Velcro for easy attachment or removal to and from your camera bag's strap. If you must hang it from your waist, there's a D ring that can hang off of a key ring holder/clip/carabiner attached to your belt.
Next, the Not-So-Good
  • Odd Head Rotation Restrictions: In time when flash heads can rotate 180 degrees both ways, the Fuji rotates 135 degrees to the left, and 180 degrees to the right (when viewed from above). This leftward limitation is bothersome, since every other rotating-head flash on the planet turns the full 180 degrees. I have to make a conscious effort to rotate clockwise when I need to bounce directly behind me, and more often than not, I forget. Heck, even their own EF-42 rotates a full half-turn to the left.
  • No Built-In Optical Slave: This would have been nice to have. 
  • No Gels: Nice, but nobody but Nikon seems to have addressed the need.
Now, the Downright Annoying
    Left: Accessory Mount Cover in place.  Center: Cover removed.  Right: Diffuser installed.
  • Diffuser Dome Installation:The Fuji diffuser (dome) lives in its own Velcro-secured storage compartment in the lid of flash storage pouch. To install it, you must: Extract the flash; Remove the accessory mount cover (bezel ring) from the front of the flash head and find someplace to store it; Remove the diffuser from its storage compartment, and finally; Push/Shove it into place. Installing and removing the accessory mount cover is a two hand job, and is hard to remove.
  • Dome Depth: The dome is also very shallow, adding only 1/4” to the effective height of the dome. The Nikon SB-80DX/SB-800 dome adds near 5/8” of an inch, give you additional light to bounce about and hopefully fill in some shadows.I find the taller domes (Nikon OEM, or Sto-Fen) create a slightly larger light source, along with some additional height above the lens axis. The shallowness means that the dome should probably be used straight on (0 degrees), and tip upwards only when one needs to feather the light to prevent overexposure to the foreground. As such, you don't get the height you'll need to add some three-dimensionality to your human subjects.
Counter-Intuitive (Manual) Exposure Compensation: Righty = Tighty? This photo shows the EF-X500 in the Manual Output mode (left), which is currently set to 1/4, or one-quarter. Conventional wisdom suggests that a clockwise turn of the selector dial (arrow) would increase the flash output. However, in EF-X500, you rotate the selector dial counter-clockwise instead.

Okay, you can learn to live with this when shooting in Manual. But when you attempt exposure compensation in the TTL Mode, the clockwise/increase relationship is valid, which means that Manual and TTL compensation are at odds with each other. You could learn to live with this, I suppose, but why should we have to? Perhaps there's a firmware update to correct this, but without a data port of some sort, I can't see how this would be possible.

Fuji Battery Pack: My special order EF-BP1supplementary battery pack came before this post's publication date and after my last assignment, so my observations are based on playing with the unit in my office. To the Good:
Build Quality: The overall build quality seems much better than the Nikon SD-9, even though its suggested retail price is $55.00 more than the Fuji.
Removable Battery Tray: The unit takes eight AA batteries, just like the Nikon SD-9. It offers spare battery trays for speedy reloading of fresh batteries, while the Fuji does not, at least for now.
Versatile Case Strap: Unlike the case provided for the EF-X500, the EF-BP1's soft case can be attached to one's belt in either a horizontal or vertical orientation.

Not So Good: In this photo, you can see that the cord exits the body towards the user. This is minor point, but if you need to make some critical adjustments, that bit of plastic and copper could get in the way. Of course Nikon eliminated by problem by putting the cable interface in the front of the speedlight, so it never gets in the way.

Grumpy Rests His Case: In summary, I did get what I wanted: TTL automation on the Fuji Platform. Fast re-cycle potential with the supplementary battery pack. However, the idiosyncrasies of the unit make for a learning curve steeper that I had hoped for. The backward output adjustments in Manual. The 135 degree left side head rotation. The less than ideal shallow diffusion dome, and the odd-ball accessory mount cover (bezel is what I call it), which may actually be a harbinger of super-cool accessories yet to come, but I doubt it.

Perhaps it's as simple as my clinging to the notion that the high-water mark in flash design was Nikon's SB-800, whose only fault was the limitation of the 180/90 degrees of left/right head rotation. Just about everything else was functional, and intuitive. It also really addressed the needs of real, in the field flash users by providing a diffusion dome and a pair of color correction gels, and an easy way to attach them. All I can do for now is cut some CC gels to size and gaffer tape them to the flash, and hope that the cost of going to a top tier TTL flash with wireless multiple flash automation was worth it.