Monday, January 27, 2020

2020 Year Of The Rat

Gung Hay Fat Choy! The city of Millbrae welcomed the Lunar New Year with a parade and a festival. Since large sections of Broadway Street would be blocked off, there would be plenty of room for a traditional Dragon Dance, since the silken serpent requires a lot of room to move about. The dragon was managed by a group of students from Millbrae High School.

Why This Shot?  The Dragon is traditionally led by a dancer waving a globe mounted on a stick, which is called the Pearl. It's a metaphor for wisdom, and the Dragon is portrayed as the embodiment of the quest for enlightenment.  I thought the image provided a chance to emphasize the meaning behind the dance, and I liked the composition and exposure well enough to submit the image. 

Dragons And I Have A History: I enjoy being around the Dragon. As a boy of eight, I had a very intimate relationship with the reptile, mainly because of my father's association with Boy Scout Troop 3, the first scout troop organized by Chinese Americans, and possibly the oldest Scout troop in San Francisco. On Chinese New Year, it fell to Troop 3 to provide the (young) man power to bring the dragon to life during the annual New Year Parade. Days before the actual parade, the Dragon was removed from its crate and assembled in the YWCA building located on Clay Street. It was my sister's and my job to screw in the light bulbs that illuminated the dragon from the inside, while adults on step ladders installed the bulbs attached to the spines on the outside. And on the Sunday after the parade, we returned to remove the bulbs before the Dragon was re-boxed and stored until its next performance.

In years past, I often submitted images where children were shown interacting with a Lion, which were common in Lunar New Year celebrations. The reasons were simple. Lyons are smaller and therefore more affordable for traditional dance groups. They require only two dancers. And their performance venues don't have to be huge.

I made this photo while the troupe was warming up. It's clean, properly exposed, but so similar to my past efforts that I held it in reserve in case nothing better came up. While I used a flash to"sparkle" the image. it wasn't really necessary, as the light overcast gave some very soft-edged shadows and a bit of fill.

Open Season: There were many, many opportunities to make a decent photo of the Dragon. I would photograph a sequence using the 8 frame per second continuous exposure mode. When the dragon turned away from me, I would sprint farther down the parade route and wait for the photo op to come to me. None of the three following samples were submitted for publication.

It no small job for the lead dancer to march down the street hoisting a dragon's head above his (or her) own in time with the drum's beat.  Unfortunately, the image had too much empty space on the right side and for that reason was not submitted. Yes, it could have been cropped, but I like to stay with the 1.5 aspect ratio in case the editor needs some extra image space on sides.

This is one time when a 10mm lens just wasn't wide enough to take in everything. However, the young man  at the left edge of the frame might have made an interesting visual element were it not for his expression. Maybe I could have lowered my camera position, but I guess I'll never know.

The Verdict? For a some reason, my editor chose to run a photo I had made the week before which I had assumed was rejected. The indoor photo was a little flat, but I wrote in my caption that the dancer "took a peek" at the audience, which probably added a humorous spin. It ran on the front page, so no complaints there.

Addendum - January 28, 2020: The photo at the top of this post ran in today's edition of the Journal. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Full Tilt Boogie At Eight Frames Per Second

1/250 second, F 9.0, ISO 400, White Balance 7000K
Martin Luther King Day In San Mateo: For me, the MLK weekend is divided into two phases. On Saturday there is the Awards Ceremony for the winners of the essay and poetry contest held at the King Center in San Mateo. The following Monday, there is the boarding of the Freedom Train that will take passengers to the King Memorial in San Francisco. Each event requires two submissions. For the awards ceremony, one or more photos of the winners at the podium, followed by a posed group photo. For the Freedom Train, I need to submit one photo including the train, and one or more "faces" that capture the spirit of the event.

Motor Drives: For a film-shooting dinosaur like myself, the phrase "motor drive" evokes images of photographers with unlimited rolls of film and the money to process them. Depending on the speed of the unit, one sustained press of the shutter release could completely expose a 36-exposure role of Ektachrome in about 8 seconds, even faster if you could locked the mirror in the up position. Motor Drives (or automatic winders) had their place, and I longed for a time when I too could shoot in such a venue, one where true art would be created with every click of the shutter.

View original image here.
I actually bought an auto-winder for my Pentax ME Super in the early '70s, but never actually used it. It was neat to hear the click-click-click of the camera advancing imaginary film faster than I could have done it manually, but shuddered at the thought of paying for all that very expensive film. Owning a auto-winder was more of a symbolic purchase than a practical one.

Legendary Life Magazine photographer John Dominis had a cute story about the time he relied on a motor drive to photograph a spinning figure skater. He focused on the  skater and fired a burst of exposures, assuming that his motor drive could capture at least one usable image of the skater's face. When his film was processed, he discovered that he made about a dozen perfectly exposed and focused frames - all of her back.

MLK Day And The Freedom Train: I decided to use the continuous shooting mode on my Fuji X-T1 to get my "all aboard" photo. In years past, I found out the hard way that the opportunity window for this photo was very brief, and having never used this feature on an assignment, decided to give it a try. In this sequence, I selected the elements I wanted to include (the San Mateo sign, the side of the train, and several people getting on board),

Rock And Roll: For this shot, I spoke with this family a few minutes before boarding, and ask that they all walked to the train so I could see their faces. I also reminded them that I wanted them to be sure that they didn't trip, so I asked that they were careful to "mind the gap". I selected this composition, set the Fuji X-T1 to 8 frames per second, and when the doors opened, fired off a burst. It was interesting to view the images in post processing and to see the subtle position changes my subjects made as they boarded. I chose the third image where nearly all the boarders were visible.

White Balance Presets: The Fuji cameras don't have an Open Shade preset, so I opted to set the white balance to 7000K. This gave the image an overall pleasing warmth. The Cloudy/Overcast preset may have worked, but I really like how this shot turned out.

Flash On An Overcast Day? You Betcha! In this photo, Marie Davis sings "Lift Every Voice And Sing" at the conclusion of the ceremony.

Even though the day was cloudy/overcast, I decided to add a tight snoot on the on-camera flash so I could add a narrow splash of light on Ms. Davis' face. I used the flexible rubber snoot designed for use with the Godox round-headed flash. This added a sparkle to her earrings and necklace, along with some tiny catchlights to her eyes. One note of caution: The snoot reduces the effective efficiency of the flash, so you'll find yourself dumping a lot of light just to get a little lightening.

Just for fun, I zoomed in on Ms. Davis' left eye, and found two catchlights. I can only assume the twin reflections were the result of a contact lens.

The on-camera flash does cast a shadow, which you barely can see along the lower edge of her hand. I'm sure that if she weren't holding the lyrics, you would have no evidence of the fill flash.

I continue to be amazed by the sharpness of the 16-55mm F 2.8 Fuji lens. In this super-crop, you can actually read the lyrics. This level of sharpness would have been impressive for a prime lens, and for a zoom lens, incredible.

Well done, Fuji!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

I'm Not Dead, But Two Of My Flashes Are

Happy New Year. I'm fighting a cold, and between sniffles, am looking for some distraction from the compulsory napping dictated by my need to recover. Photographically, 2020 has been a slow year, but with the Martin Luther King Day Essay Contest coming next week, I'll get ready to make a group photo of the winners, a ritual I've been performing since I started with the Journal.

I regret that two of my relatively new, post Nikon flashes have bit the dust. One was a Godox TT350, and the other was my older Lumo Pro 180. The former behaved erratically while on active duty as my emergency on-camera Fuji flash, while the latter bought the farm by falling from my dining room table to the floor. While the two flashes are at opposite ends of the cost spectrum (the  Godox as about $60.00, the Lumo Pro nearly three times as much), they are both products of a new business model where no provisions are made to actually repair a non-functioning unit.

Over the years, I've sent several Nikon speedlights back for repairs, and if memory serves me, the cost was about $130.00 to cure whatever ailed them. The cost was always less than one half the cost of replacement, and in the case of the SB-800, about one third. In the world that was "old school design", these units could be repaired when necessary, and the replacement parts would be available to insure a reasonably long life. Considering the prices charged for these premium speedlights and the manufacturer's reputation for quality, I had every right to expect they'll be durable and reliable.

However, the manufacturers of these two dead flashes have adopted a different approach. Rather than repair a malfunctioning unit, the distributor will simply exchange it for new one for a flat processing fee equivalent to the wholesale cost of the unit. With labor being as expensive as it is, it's just more efficient and less costly to minimize the time spent dealing with the issue. In the case of the Godox, the costs associated with shipping it to a distributor plus the suspected processing fee isn't that much less than just buying another one. The Lumo Pro is a different matter. I don't know how the dealer will address the issue, but with the advent of Godox lithium ion battery units (of which I own eight), a manual flash that relies on AA batteries just isn't worth repairing.

Order yours here.
The Compromise: Today, I make it a point to carry two, if not three, flashes when I'm on assignment. Back in the day, when a single SB-800 with a Gary Fong Light Sphere was my primary lighting setup, I never gave a second thought to a field malfunction. All I needed was a second set of AA batteries, and I was good to go.

Now,  with multiple flashes in my bag, I have upped my lighting game considerably, but in the end, I'm carrying a primary light plus one or two backups. Sure, the built-in radio triggers of the Godox units really simplify the creative lighting process, but when all is said and done, I still consider those additional flashes as emergency replacements for when, or if, I get a significant flash failure.

Redundancy has become a necessary attribute to my kit when I'm working in the field. At first, it was there for assurance. Now, it's more like mechanical insurance for when my photo project goes south.

January 16, 2020 Addendum: I had given last rights to the Godox, but left it with the rest of my e-waste so I could re-cycle them all together.  Just for a lark, I installed some fresh batteries (the same test I gave it before pronouncing it dead), and low and behold, it came back to life. It seems that there may be a loose connection between the door contacts and the body itself. For now, I'll need to play with the flash for a while before I am confident enough to take it back into the field. Resurrection was not in the cards for the Lumo Pro, unfortunately.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A Bloke Mucking About (7Artisans 35mm F 1.2)

I decided to mail a letter at the Castro post office and to enjoy the welcomed appearance of the sun at the end of a dark and dreary morning. I was using the 35mm 7artisans prime as my lens of choice, and since it has already proven its penchant for slight color shifts, decided to just play with different levels of color saturation and create some images that might be a little more "festive".

Dinosaurs In The Window: I made this photo of a infant-friendly plush animal mobile in a window of a shuttered specialty store. I have a soft spot for dinosaurs and frogs, and love them as much as I love puppies and birdies, and yes, sometimes kitties too. I can't help but grin at this comic representation of a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex. If I was a little plush Brontosaurus, I'd be really scared.

I was curious to see if this lens was indeed sharp, so I zoomed in on the eye, which was my point of focus. I was amazed that this shot, made through the glass windows, showed the lens to be sharper than I had expected, and more than adequate for its role as a leisure lens on a leisure body.

I'm still not wild about the 50mm equivalent focal length, and still think its field of view is too narrow for my tastes. Alas, the 25mm lens hasn't made it across the Atlantic yet, and since I was late to the purchasing party, got stuck at the very end of the customer line. Based on this particular photo, I hope all the 7artisans lenses are equally sharp, as they are certainly handy and inexpensive.

Harvey: Reminders of Supervisor Harvey Milk (1930-1978) are everywhere in the Castro, and this mural, painted on the side of the restaurant I knew as the Cafe San Marco, shows him as a cross between Mario Savio and George Washington. I mentioned in a earlier post that I knew Harvey and frequented his camera store. I sensed his greatness even then.

Bokeh To You Too, Bud! Bokeh is a term often used in the evaluations of these manual-focus wonders. It is the umami of the photography, a difficult-to-define quality, something you recognize but cannot accurately describe. In short, it's a way to value the rendition of the out-of-focus backgrounds using words like creamy, smooth, and blurry. This lens does a good job in the background department.

Just so you know: SFUSD stands for San Francisco Unified School District. The historic street lamp globe belongs to the school district and not to the city proper. I'm not sure why they felt the need to identify it so, but there you have it.

From the Web. Citations will follow
A contributing factor to quality bokeh is the lens's 9-bladeed diaphragm, which gives an aperture that is more circular than polygonal. This tends to enhance this desired blurry effect. Automated lens often reduce the number of aperture blades to decrease the time it takes for the lens to transition from a "open aperture" to the smaller "shooting aperture" just prior to exposure.

You can see in this illustration a lens with six aperture blades (left) and one with eight blades (right) By all rights the eight-bladed lens would produce better bokeh, and has contributed to the popularity of the 7artisans manual lenses which have nine to fourteen.

While on my walk, I found out that my 55mm 1.4 lens had just been delivered, so I will comment on it as soon as I get a chance.