Sunday, August 27, 2017

Burlingame Street Faire - Zone Focusing

Photo #1
This balloon monkey (Photo #1) was one of the more festive art pieces found at a street fair held in my neighbor to the north, Burlingame. Shortly after this photo was made, I had my "Money Shot" safely stored on the camera's SD card, so I was now free to roam about, making photos that I simply wanted to, of subjects that I found amusing.

For these shots, I used a Fuji X100T and used a cheap, no-named radio trigger with a Nikon SB-800 set to non-TTL automation. Depending on the intensity of the existing light, I sometimes decreased the flash output by decreasing the size of the aperture.

Photo #2
Swing Time: Several instructors from a local dance studio were giving impromptu dance lessons , as you can see here in Photo #2. With the wide angle adapter on my Fuji, I now had the equivalent of a 28mm lens. I was able to stay close to my subjects, thus minimizing interference from passers-by. For this low angle shot, I held the camera at waist level, viewing the camera's LCD display from an oblique angle. This odd angle gave me a rough idea of my composition, but without a reticulated display, it was the best I could do, and was essentially  "shooting from the hip". However, it gave me the effect I wanted: a less cluttered background. The reticulated display on the X-T2 would have made it much easier, but I wanted to use high flash synchronization speeds, which only the XT100T could provide. I could also purchase a Fuji X70 for its fast sync speeds, APS sensor, and reticulated LCD, but shots like these can't justify a $700.00 investment.

Photo #3
When shooting at such short distances, one is beset by a different set of problems. Subjects who move randomly (and rapidly) are more difficult to track, even with the most advanced focus tracking systems. Then too, focusing outdoors can be problematic when the subject is lit from behind.

Zone Focusing: Here's a technique that can be applied in situations were your camera is having difficulty keeping up with the rapid movement of the dancers. Instead, I set the camera my X100 T to Manual Focus, and using the distance scale displayed in the viewfinder, chose a distance of 5 feet. Now all I have to do is stand 5 feet from my main subject and shoot when I get the expression I want. It can get tricky, but I learned to move forward and backward with my subjects in an attempt to keep the distance as close to 5 feet as I could (Photo #3).

Photo #4
Here's a closeup of the display on the X100T in Manual Focus Mode (Photo #4). The grey rectangle is the Manual Focus Assist Zone, which for all intents and purposes acts like a traditional split image rangefinder. The focusing ring has been rotated to the 5 foot position.When shooting at an aperture of F 8.0, the depth of field, indicated by the blue line, extends ranges from about 4 feet to 7 feet, a zone that's pretty easy to estimate.

Photo #5
With the focusing issue resolved, I simply let the flash dole out a "proper exposure". I could also experiment with different combinations to produce a flash "key" light, for use it as a fill. In Photo #3 and Photo #5, you can see that by underexposing the ambient light, my speedlight was actually functioning as a key light, with almost no detail in the shadows. In Photo #2, the speedlight served as a fill light.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had used the zone focusing technique many, many years ago, when lenses focused manually and every lens had a distance scale and depth of field markers. Having essentially the same features on my Fuji made it pretty easy to apply this old technique.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Photos For Publications - Composition and Content

Many amateur photographers are asked if they can make a photo or two for possible publication in a club or organization newsletter, or possibly for submission to a local newspaper for publication in the community section. While it is up to an editor to decide whether a photo is run, the quality of the image can influence whether it runs at all.

I have photographed a variety of community events for the San Mateo Daily Journal since 2010. These are the guidelines I follow for my images, and I suggest you consider doing the same.

Arranging For Time: If you know a photo will be taken, arrange for the event organizer to get you subjects together at a specific location, at a specific time.

Landscape Orientation: I always compose my images in the landscape (horizontal) format. Since the caption is placed below the image, the wider text line is the more efficient use of this limited space. Trust me on this one.

Visual Content: Every images communicates to the viewer at two levels:
  • Recognition: The viewer recognizes something in the image that relates to the event. This would be appropriate logos, trophies, or certificates.
  • Inference: The viewer recognizes something to suggests a mood. Smiles, hand gestures, and body posture contribute to the "feeling" of a photo. 

Photo #2
In this particular image (Photo #2), the words "Presiding Judge Criminal" add some intellectual value to the image - you know exactly why the bailiff is armed and why he has a "Don't mess with me" posture . Without the sign on the door, it is only a photo of a bailiff. His facial expression adds to the image. The inference is clearly there. It would certainly not be as compelling a photo if he was smiling.

Photo #3a
Directing The Viewer's Focus: There are several  aspects of this photo that might make it a "first pick". Notice that all of the dancers have a similar stance, so there is symmetry in the repeated triangles of their bodies (Photo 3a).The grill of the truck in the background suggests a marching formation you might find at any parade.

Incidentally, they dancers are just warming up, as making a photograph during the actual parade can be distracting to other viewers. No sense in making it difficult for others to enjoy the actual parade.

Photo 3b
This second variation has one main difference: The dancer at camera left is looking up, directing her gaze towards the middle of the photo (Photo 3b). The two dancers at camera right are also looking towards the middle of the photo. This subtle difference keeps the viewer's attention inside the photo.

There is a single distracting element in the background - the costumed dancer walking out of the frame. The image could not be cropped tighter without cutting into a the right-most dancer's arm and leg. The image is pretty much the way I saw it in the viewfinder, which is to say it was only slightly cropped.

Photo #4
Props: In this shot, you can see that the subject is holding his plaque and the check, making it obvious that he has won an award (Photo #4). One can infer from his smile, and the onlookers in the background, that he's pleased with the presentation. If you look in the background, you can see that everybody is looking at this young award winner.

Photo #5
I made Photo #5 as a record shot of the members of an philanthropic organization, and not the shot I had planned to submit. As it stands, it's a great shot of a group of women, but there is not hint to why they are together. As it turned out, the shot I wanted and the shot the organization wanted were at cross purposes.

The 4 B's: There is a general rule about what makes a good, publishable photo called the "4 B's". Simply put, the most publishable shots will have "Babies, Babes, Beasts, or Blood". One could argue that I met the second criterion, but without any props, the photo has no real context.

This shot from the same organization went a little overboard from the inference, but there is no doubt in the viewer's mind as to what the photo's backstory is. Admittedly, those in the front row say it all, while the back row fills the shot out.

Looking back, I can find a lot of flaws with the photo, many that could have been easily corrected. The reality of the shots include the difficulty in getting everybody together, the time it took for everybody to get their awards, and the five minutes I had to make the photo before the evening's Mistress of Ceremonies began her presentation. And when all is said and done, nearly all of my subjects would rather be doing something else.

Glare: When photographing award recipients, have them tip the awards down slightly. This will eliminate any glare issues. 

Photo 6a

Backgrounds: The background to be used to define the location, and often the relevance, of a photograph (Photo 6a). Here, it's pretty clear who the event sponsor was, and the microphone suggests that that the subject is speaking to a large audience.

I tend to crop to the same proportions as 35mm film (aka Aspect Ratio of 1.5). In this photo, any addition reduction of the photo might lead to clipping part of my subject's left hand.

Photo 6b
This variation was accomplished by zooming in with the lens, rather than moving about in a crowded dining area (Photo 6b). While not essential, zoom lenses allow you to crop you images in a variety of ways without the loss of image quality that comes with extreme cropping.

In both of these shots, the subject placement closely follows the classic "rule of thirds" placement of the subject. This is more about the speaker and less about the sponsor.

Photo #7
The Ceiling As A Background: Unless you are photographing in outer space, there is always something behind your subject. Whether you can actually see it is another story. For this shot, the ship's sail, suspended from the ceiling, suggests the nautical theme of this fundraiser (Photo #7). The photo was made from a relatively low camera position so the sail could be included.

To make the shot, I placed a second flash on the floor and aimed it towards the sail. Some light spilled onto the auction prizes on the left side of the frame. I might add that in the interest of space, the editor cropped out the ceiling and the sail.

Photo #8
This last shot was made in the Redwood City Courthouse, known for its ornate stained glass highlights. Immediately after their last dress rehearsal, I made this shot. It took 8 speedlights to get the effect I wanted: 2 fired from a softbox, one on the floor as a low fill, three aimed at the back walls (these had orange gels to give the walls some warmth), and a single speedlight pointed at the back of my middle subject's head. They were very cooperative, and posed in a manner consistent with their characters. The shot required almost an hour of preparation and only five minutes of shooting time, probably the most time intensive shot I've made to date. It is probably my favorite, and gives you the idea of just how far one might go to achieve some interesting visual results.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Happy Fiftieth, Bill and Dee Dee!

1/25 of a second, F 5.6, ISO 1600, Cloudy White Balance.
Congratulations to Bill and Dee Dee! I was a man with a mission at my friends' 50th Wedding Anniversary celebration, and it was to make a suitable family photograph of the immediate and extended families. It took about six tries to get this photo, which was about the limit of the collective attentions spans. After all, their dinners were waiting.

Here are some tips for those who must photograph groups:
  • Obstructed View: I told my subjects to look down, and if they could not see my shoes, they would need to move either left or right so the camera could see everyone's face. If you look at the subjects at the camera's right, you'll what a difference this can make. In the future, I'm going to ask, in row order for everybody to look down, and it they see the back of somebody's head, adjust their position. In a perfect world, the second row would adjust based on the "heads" in the first row, and the third would do likewise in relation to the subjects in row #2.
  • Head Alignment: I've been told that it's better to NOT have the heads on a single line. With that in mind, I try to get the taller subjects in the back, and open gaps so that they can be easily seen. I have found this to be a worthy goal, but the larger the group, the harder it is do in a systematic way. For this shot, I made a few quick re-arrangements, ever mindful that the longer the process, the squirmier my youngest subjects will be.

Immediate Family: Just after I thanked everybody for their patience, Bill asked if I'd make a shot with just his immediate family, which I was glad to do. Since they were already in place, it was easy.
  • Young Subjects: When doing a series of shots, it's better to do the youngest subjects first, since they get fidgety sooner. Luckily, my little ones were still quite attentive.

Kids Being Kids: If I didn't already have my best shot "on the card", I would have cried if this was the best shot of the session. Since I had my keeper, I included this photo, which in my opinion is great shot of "kids being kids".

Did I Mention Dancing? Bill and Dee Dee are ballroom dancing instructors, and unsurprisingly, nearly all of their friends and dancers, too. When the music started, I photographed a number of couples in action. For this wide shot, I used ceiling bounce with the built in fill card. This gave me much more event "front to back" illumination, although it will require nearly full-power output from your speedlight for every shot. I actually overheated one of my SB-800s, forcing me to swap speedlights mid-session so that it could cool off. The technique worked well for wider shots.

When working at shorter distances, I stayed with the Gary Fong Light Sphere. It's flatter lighting, but more complimentary for nearly all faces due to its "size" and proximity to the lens axis. It wastes a lot of light in large venues like this, but it slam-dunk easy easy to use, and the results are almost always good, so long as you stay relatively close to your subject. One point I'd like to make in favor of the Cloud Dome - It's coverage is VERY wide, so you're less likely to have a falloff of light on the left and right edges.

I had a great time making these photos, and know that Bill and Dee Dee will be pleased with the family shot. As for the dancing, those were mostly for me.