Sunday, December 30, 2018

Outdoor Lighting That's Believable

Supplementary Lighting: This photo appeared in two posts so far. I decided to use it once more, as I realized it illustrates a point Joe McNally made about supplementary lighting, and how to make the viewer accept it as an natural part of the environment and not an afterthought by the photographer. I made this photo with that intent clearly in mind.

A photographer friend  saw this image and assumed it was an available light photo. This was probably due to two conscious actions on my part. First, the bright lamps at the back of the parking lot were included to suggest that there are powerful lights in the parking lot. Second, the primary light, a flash with a dome-type diffuser, was placed well above the camera axis, giving the feeling that the subject was standing at the base of a street light. These two factors make the image totally believable, and help the viewer concentrate on the subject.

Accent Light In The Background: This earlier attempt, made in April of 2018, was an early attempt of multiple flash used in a "run and gun" environment. Even a casual viewer will notice that Cissie is standing in the background clearly holding the monopod with the flash. It pretty obvious that she's not a part of the natural surroundings,and while the image is fun, she does distract the viewer.

Cropping Can Help: Here, I cropped Cissie from the composition but kept the light itself because I wanted to maintain a 8x10 aspect ratio. Now it's a little easier to concentrate on my three dancers, but the viewer is still left with the question, "What's that big ball of light doing in the photo?"

In the future, I'll need to establish an extended command vocabulary to my "VAL" or Voice Actuated Lightstand.  Should I need to apply a similar lighting solution in the future, my commands will probably include:

Closer: Keep the light to subject distance constant, but move closer to me along an arc. This would have moved Cissie closer to the right edge of the frame.

Farther: Just the opposite, this would move Cissie to a position behind the subjects, which is also an option, since I won't need to maintain a line-of-sight between my camera and the flash.

Nearer: Decrease the light-to-subject distance by moving closer to the subjects along a straight line.

Farther: Increase the distance, as above.

Square Crop: This final, severe crop completely eliminates the distractions of of Cissie and the flash "fireball", and makes this image perfectly acceptable, so long as the view doesn't mind a square format.

How Close Is Too Close? Good question, and one that is easily answered. If my VAL can look at the subjects and NOT see any signs of nose, the the position is a good one. The worst thing one can do when using an accent light is to allow the light to skim across the side of the nose. Providing Cissie looks at the subject from behind the monopod, she can tell when a bit of nose becomes visible. When that happens, she can re-position herself until the nose/s is/are no longer visible. An accent light that grazes the cheek is perfectly acceptable, and as you can tell from the subject at camera right, I was nowhere near that critical point.

This is pretty sophisticated stuff for a run-and-gun managed candid photo, but I never intended for this photo to be published.  If this sort of opportunity presents itself again, I won't hesitate to take the steps to refine the lighting.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Bethlehem 2018

Spoiler Alert: Spoiler alert? Well, nothing went wrong, and everything went right, mostly.

Bethlehem AD (BAD.) is an annual event I have been photographing since 2013. This recreation of Bethlehem as it might have appeared during the first Christmas was, at the time, shrouded in mystique, and event where parking would be impossible, the night dark and cold, and like Brigadoon, would appear for only three magical evenings and then vanish. It was those three days that would cause a problem.

Bethlehem 2013 A.D.
My goal has always been to get a photo published in time for the Journal's readers to attend the event, spurred on by the intense interest my photo was likely to inspire (Yeah, right). To some extent, my very first image did just that, being well remembered by the organizers of BAD, one going so far as calling me "THE Tom Jung, the one who made that great photo of King Herod." Sad to say, it may have been beginner's luck, as I've not submitted a better shot, though many came fairly close. But I digress.

This year, BAD ran from Friday through Sunday. By the time I submitted a photo opening night, the Saturday/Sunday paper would have already been "put to bed" and the photo wouldn't appear until Monday morning, the day after it was all over.

I knew this well in advance, and when actors from this year's BAD marched in Redwood City's Holiday Parade, I made a quick photo of these two costumed chicken wranglers which could be used to promote the event if I couldn't get anything better. Too bad I don't speak Chicken - If I did, I'd get these two hens to look up and smile. But I digress.

My lucky break came when the director invited me to the dress rehearsal scheduled for the night before the big opening. If I could get a shot on Thursday night and submit it Friday morning, it would be in running for publication over the weekend.  Perfect!

When I arrived, the Heavenly Host was already in place beside and above the manger, dancing to the sound track that would bring an audio backdrop for the tableau. Since another photographer was already flash photographing the set, I felt free to mount a radio-triggered flash on a tall light stand, knowing that I couldn't be any more distracting than the photographer already working the set. The dancers, already accustomed to having spotlights pointed directly at them, didn't seem to notice.

I made almost 100 photos, trying to get the flow of the gowns just right. I also wanted to have some hint of the Creche without having it draw attention away from my primary angel. In the end, I submitted the image at the top of this post. I wasn't really happy with the dancer in the background, but since her face was concealed, she didn't draw the viewer's attention away from the foreground.

Lighting Issues: I used a single flash mounted on a light stand about 8' above the ground. In spite of the specularity of the single sight source, its elevated position helps to create the shadows that define the gown, giving details to the pale garment. The combination of a high ISO setting and the power of the flash allowed me to use a relatively constant 20' flash to subject distance, simplifying my worries about my shooting position.

Warning Light. Looking at these images, you might not realized that it's really dark out there, and that a black light stand would be an accident waiting to happen. I happened to have an LED head lamp in my bag, so I set it to the "blink" mode and hung it from the light stand, pointing down. My logic was that people will (hopefully) look down when walking over uneven ground, and spot the blinking light and walk around it. For the few minutes I was actually shooting, it seemed to work.

The whole shootin' match was over by 9:00 pm, so I went home knowing that there would be plenty to time to get the image to the paper before the 4:00 pm Friday deadline. Everybody seemed pleased with the photo, but I am still wondering if there was a better image that I might have captured had I been more patient, or more attentive. Just like fishing, when after catching a trophy-sized bass, you can't help but wonder if there's an even larger fish, waiting, watching, and laughing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Treats For The Screaming Eagles

Airborne! The 101st Airborne Division is San Mateo's own, an honor that dates back to the Viet Nam war era. Officially adopted in 1968, San Mateo really rolled out the red carpet for the 50th Anniversary celebration in June of this year. Every year, goodies and thank you cards arrive at City Hall, which will be delivered to the troops in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, before their deployment to Afghanistan in late December.

As a photo, this shot isn't noteworthy, but in some ways the back story is. The photo was made on a Monday, which happened to be the first day of my call to Jury Duty. As it turned out, our first meeting was re-scheduled to the following Tuesday, so all of a sudden I had the time to make this photo. I grabbed my normal Fuji kit bag and my press pass, and at the last moment decided to bring my Justin Case, something I swore I'd bring to every event, "just in case". With my Fuji kit bag and my Justin Case, I entered City Hall, ready to go.

Ready On The Set? My subjects were most helpful, moving a pile of treats to front counter for the photo.  This was the best compromise as it required the least amount of work while providing a suitable office background. To my shock, when I checked by Fuji bag, there was no speedlight to be found! After a deep breath, I remembered that I had experimented with a Fuji-dedicated Adorama flash, which I used in my last assignment. I removed it to change the batteries and apparently forgot to return it to the kit. But having that spare SB-80 saved the day for me, allowing me to proceed without delay.

Pound Foolish: I guess I went overboard in assembling a lighter Fuji kit to ease my aching shoulders, and while my two bodies and three lenses could potentially cover any disaster, my failure to replace that primary flash was a potentially disastrous oversight. Now my much heavier Nikon kit bag includes two bodies, three lenses, and as many as three speedlights, but was left at home since this was a relatively simple assignment. But today, I was so thankful that I thought to bring my little emergency kit, and that in a few seconds, I was back in the game.

After mounting the flash in the hotshoe,  I aimed it at the white ceiling and pulled out the built-in bounce card. The resulting image was acceptable, although I wished I could have lightened the background, something I could have easily done if I had a second flash.  But I didn't, so the shot was made with what I had with me. It reminded me of how important flashes are to my work, and neglecting to have a backup for something so important was foolish in the extreme.

As we approach the Winter Solstice, be sure to celebrate its arrival in any manner you see fit, so long as you bring to it the kindness and compassion we should show to everyone, all year round.  As Kinky Freeman said in a radio interview, "May you be blessed by the God of your choice!"

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Christmas Comes To Redwood City

Hometown Holidays: On the first Saturday of every December, Redwood City throws a parade and block party to celebrate the holiday season. It is an all-day affair, running from 10:00 am until 8:00 pm, with dancing, music, a visit from Santa, and a parade down main street.  I was here at the request of the Editor In Chief, and since it was potentially a fun assignment, decided to attend. I couldn't spend the entire day, so I decided to concentrate on the evening activities, since I would have opportunities to experiment with lighting.

I was using with a new lighting setup (more on that later) when I was accosted by this dancing green alligator. She was wondering if I would take a group photo of her pre-schoolers who had just finished marching in the parade. Of course I said yes, thinking that this might be the photo I would submit if nothing else showed. And with a group this large, I wasn't realistically obligated to get every person's name.

Working with groups is never really easy, but when working with these kids, it was more like photographing cats. I had to call on the adults to help the youngsters settle down and pay attention to the stranger with the camera.

I managed to make three shots,and this one had the most faces looking at the camera. It wasn't 100%, but not a bad effort, considering I was fighting a combination of youthful excitement and "I need my nap" stupor. If you look closely, you can see the napping twins in their stroller, catching up on their sleep.

Back At The Parade: As we made our way towards the parade, this pair of young chicken wranglers came as part of the Bethlehem 2018 AD contingency. In 2018 it would be a Friday through Sunday event, so unless the paper "held the presses" on Friday night for a Saturday publication, the photo was destined to run on Monday, the day after the event was over.  This photo could be used to publicize the event in advance.

Dancing In The Street: Other members for the Bethlehem marching group were dancing down the street, and I caught this photo showing the flowing "cape" as she twirled. It also shows some of the shortcomings of using flash at night outdoors. With reflective surfaces, you lose a lot of light in the sky, and the radius of proper illumination, measured from the flash, is a narrow band.  Subjects in front of, or in back of, this band will be over and underexposed, respectively. The only way to minimize the effect is to move the flashed farther from your subjects, but the resulting loss of light intensity requires a powerful flash and a very long light stand.

1/250th second, F 4.0, ISO 1600
The Money Shot: I needed to get the names of the two chicken wranglers from the earlier shot, so I followed the group back to the church. I manged to locate them both and get their names and contact information. I now had two potential shots, although I wasn't happy with either one. Still, I wasn't going to go home empty handed, so Cissie and I headed back to my car.

On the way out, I found this "angel" with her winged companion, getting ready to go home too. When I saw how the streetlight in the background gave a "glow" about them, I thought I would try to blend that highlight with the light from a flash, so I made a sample exposure. Examining the image, I did indeed have a "pooped pooch", and this might have made a cute photo if I had more detail in the background. But when the flash went off, the dog was alerted to my presence, and the potential moment was lost.

For the record, the flash had a full CTO gel taped to the flash tube, and the camera's white balance was set to the Incandescent preset.

1/2 second, F 4.0, ISO 1600
Hail Mary! In an act of subdued desperation, I increased the exposure time to 1/2 second, just to see how how the evening sky would appear. On seeing the blurred (and awful!) results, I decreased the exposure by three "clicks", giving me a setting of 1/16 of a second.

Having made these adjustments, I had to get the dog's attention before I made the shot. Without thinking, I started to growl, then bark, at my subject, and she responded in kind, looking to see where the sounds were coming from. My imitation must not have been very good, as the expression I got was more quizzical than combative.

1/16th second, F 4.0, ISO 1600
Here's the final shot. I used the reticulated LCD to get a lower perspective, and while this method allows for a more relaxed evaluation of the overall composition, it makes it more difficult to establish critical focus as it is sometimes difficult to locate the focusing brackets when the camera is held away from the eye. Close examination showed that the dog's collar was slightly out of focus, and there is overall softness in the image. This could be due to the relatively long exposure time, but luckily for me most of the subject blur will only be found in the hair highlights and the illuminated tiara.

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The Equipment: This assignment was a test run for the Magmod Magbounce, a new take on the tried and true Gary Fong Cloud Dome. In theory, the open front of the device allows more light to illuminate the subject without first passing through the opaque plastic dome of the Gary Fong unit. It is also very quick to deploy, since the dome can be stuffed into a camera bag more easily than the Fong Dome can be collapsed. And the fancy magnet system makes the "on and off" process even easier.

Let me submit my opinion on all of these "domes" and their effect on your photography. The position of your light in relation to your subject is more important than the size of the light source. Even though the surface area is a bit larger than the Gary Fong unit, these modifiers come into their own when mounted off camera, which I do using a monopod like I'd use a light stand. Based on the group shot at the top of this post, it appears that the Mag Bounce creates a hard lower edge to the light pattern that you don't have with the Fong Sphere. This thing needs to be aimed carefully.

One Last Point: The stuff is expensive. It will cost more to get into a Magbounce system than the Gary Fong unit. What you're paying for is ease of setup. I was an early Gary Fong adopter, and own nearly every iteration of his cloud domes and  light spheres. I don't think the Magbounce or its sibling the Magdome are better, just faster to deploy.