Category Archives: Hardware

The incredible Shrinking Camera, Olympus OM-D Micro Four thirds

To get to the meat of the article, Yes, it looks like a toy but it takes very good images. Done.  Now, on to the details !!

I’ve been eyeing a micro four thirds camera for a while now, something between my D700 boat anchor and my iPhone. I have a Canon G11 but I hate the controls and I find the picture quality to be marginal in high contrast situations. I also despise the noise control of the G11. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things on the Olympus OM-D and a deal popped up to get the camera body, a 17mm F/ 1.8 lens, a 12-50mm zoom, a grip and the TTL flash for a good price. So I decided to go for it and pick it up.

I have to say, while it’s small, the build quality is very good. The 17mm lens has a very nice feel to it when I’m using it and the body while small in my hands, has just enough heft to keep me from thinking it’s a lomo toy camera. The flip screen is lovely but like every other LCD I’ve ever used, bright light just kills the display. But the OMD has a cool proximity sensor so when you put your face up the the viewfinder, it automagically switches from the preview screen to the viewfinder.  The stabilization is to die for. I wish very much that Nikon would take a lesson and use something like this over their VR system.

I’ve added in an assortment of images that show the camera used from a moving car, bright daylight, night time and some snapshots. All the images were shot in RAW then processed in Lightroom 5 and sometimes, CC6 Photoshop.

I would not hesitate at all to shoot one of my professional sessions using this camera. I would think twice or three times about shooting a wedding with it. I find the controls to be awkward and small for my hands. I do not like the low light performance compared to a FX sensor. And there is the perception issue of using a “Consumer” camera while being paid to be a “Professional”. Yes, size does matter at times. When a bride is paying upwards of five thousand dollars for the full deal, she generally wants to see something that her mum is not shooting with.
This first gallery is using my 17mm F/1.8 lens and natural night with the camera to aperture priority.

The next gallery shows off the ability to shoot outside in bright light and handle extreme contrasts.

The final gallery shows off using the OMD at high ISO (1600) and slow shutter speeds. These were all hand held shots and you can see how sharp they are even with the slow shutter. The OM-D holds up pretty well in the noise arena but my D700 can go to ISO 3200 with less noise so for now, full frame (FX) sensors work better. This not to say the OM-D is a slouch, it’s not but it’s not up to beating a full frame camera just yet.

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iPhone Magic or How to Make Your Smartphone Smarter

This post is not an iPhone specific post, it will apply to ANY Smartphone that can take a picture. But, since I specialize with the iPhone, that is the one I will reference to the most for this post. Virtually all of the smartphones have a camera now of varying ability. But the one thing they cannot do is a decent zoom. Oh they say they can “zoom” but what they are doing is taking that small marginal image and then cropping it to make it even more marginal.

A real zoom would need moving optics and with our collective lust for thin form factors, a optical zoom on a cell phone is just in not in the offering. Why is this important? Because it points out a hard set limitation of the camera. Other limitations are the lack of adjustable F stops or a real adjustable shutter. These are the things you need to learn about on your phone because knowledge is power. With the knowledge of your phone’s limits, you can overcome the limits and make the phone camera do what you want it to do and how you want it do it.

For an example, lets use my iPhone 4S as our test bed. It has a fixed aperture of 2.8 and works to adjust the exposure in the daylight by keeping the ISO low and the shutter speed high. And I mean very high, I have images with the EXIF data showing 1/10,000 of a second shutter speed. So if I want blur in the middle of the day, what can I do? According to Apple I cannot adjust any of these adjustments. But, there is way to FAKE it!. All I need to do is make the camera think it’s darker outside than it really is. This is accomplished by the use of a special filter called a Neutral Density Filter or ND filter. They are measured in “stops” of darkness, starting at 1 stop then 2 stops and finally 3 stops of darkness. You can even stack them to add up 2+3 to get 5 stops of darkness. Cool you say but my phone does not have any place to attach this filter. True but with a bit of gaffers tape, you can TAPE the filter over the camera lens and the camera wont know any better. I always carry a bit of gaffers tape with me wrapped around a sharpie marker pen.

Gaffers tape and sharpie

Gaffers tape and sharpie

Here are the ND filter I use on my iPhone. I bought them years ago for my Nikon 950 digital camera so they are too small for anything new but work perfectly when taped in place on my iPhone.

Neutral Density Filters

Neutral Density Filters

Why would you want to use something like this? In the following example, I’m at Disneyland taking pictures of the submarines going through the waterfall. A rule of thumb is that movement adds drama to an image. But with it being bright, the default shutter speed of my iPhone camera would have been high enough to freeze the water in motion. You can see that freezing in this image but it’s not what I wanted on the waterfall. I wanted the water to show action unlike this shot where I wanted to freeze the action.

Frozen motion using iPhone

Frozen motion using iPhone

To get the motion I needed to slow down the shutter speed. But according to Apple, I cannot do that. But I know if I use the ND filters, I can make the camera THINK it’s dark and it will slow down the shutter to let in more light for a proper exposure. To be frank, shooting in this hack style of photography is a blend of experimentation, luck and guesswork. But it does work as you can see here. I have the submarine sharp but the water which is moving faster than the submarine is blurred. This adds a lot of drama to the snapshot.

Disneyland submarine going through waterfall

Disneyland submarine going through waterfall

Now I have a keeper shot rather then just another poorly done snapshot like everybody else with a smartphone. So the takeaway here is to learn the limits of the camera and then be creative in working around them to get the camera to do what you want it to do. After all, you are the photographer, not the camera 🙂

You can find more tips like this in my iBook “How to Create Amazing iPhone Photographs” in iTunes as an iBook or at Lulu.com as a PDF for all other devices.

Also posted in iPhone, musings, technique, Travel

Cheap Third Hand Style of Clamp

As humans, we have two hands. But, every time you think two are enough, you need a third one. You can buy 3rd hand tools which is just a couple of clamps mounted on a bendable shaft of some kind. But being cheap, I decided to see what I could do with a few bits and pieces I had laying around the garage. I had a bag of plastic clamps I bought at Home Depot, some leftover aluminum clothes line wire, a few wooden clothes pins and gaffers tape. I was able to pot together a clamp in ten minutes that would hold a light flag or reflector or even a lightweight subject like a flower.

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80 / 20 rule or how good is good enough

Point and shoot cameras are a dying breed. Virtually everyone now has a smart phone with a camera and that includes myself. Yes, I have my very expensive cameras for projects and assignments but in truth, often times for myself, I’m shooting with my iPhone. Why? Because it’s “Good enough”. For 80% of the time, it’s perfect for what I need in my daily life. Would I shoot a wedding with it? Only if you paid me AND signed a contract saying as much. For most people, it’s the old 80/20 rule where the 80% is close enough. The iPhone or other smart phone is 80% close enough and they dont need or even want that last 20%.

With the new software like Snapseed and Photoshop apps, you can do alot with the phone or iPad that even a year ago seemed out of reach. You can now get iPhoto for the iPad.. really? a real editor and photo manager on an iPad? Oh yeah.. now we are styling.

So here is an image taken with the iPhone and edited on the phone using Snapseed software. Pretty amazing !!

 

I love shooting 30 second video clips for one group I’m active with on Facebook. Why? Because it’s a fun way for people to really get to know me by HEARING me speak and watch me talk about something. I’ve included a small sample here of my “Cooking Show” for my friends on Facebook.

As Pros, we sometimes forget that the 80/20 rule really does apply in alot of ways. AS consumers, we live in great times but all the apps will not make you a professional photographer. If you want a professional shot, you need to track one of us pros down for that critical 20% of your life when the iPhone picture just wont do. But also remember  that with a bit of work, that small phone can take some amazing images.

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Shooting high quality pictures on the cheap

Compact fluorescent light bulb

Image via Wikipedia

I hear alot from photographers, both pro and amateur alike about all this expensive equipment they “need” to have in order to shoot good photographs. I know it well since I also used to say the same thing. Or at least I did till I saw some work done with cheap equipment, obsolete equipment and DIY equipment. I also read up on what some of the famous photographers used to make their images. What Ansel Adams used to make most of his famous images would be considered junk by most photographers today if shown the camera without the backstory. Oddly enough, if you gave the photographers the backstory, then the camera would suddenly be imbued with mythical qualities of just the right lens or some other quirk that gave Ansel the edge he needed. None of which addresses the one critical fact that is Ansel KNEW how to make an image before he even tripped the shutter.

I see the same thing with lighting, I see it with cameras, lenses, bags and more. Photographers are equipment junkies which in itself is fine but when it gets to the point that you can not take a pictures without several thousand dollars of equipment and it’s your kids birthday party, you might want to rethink things a bit. I’m as guilty as the next photographer who grabs the three thousand dollars selection of equipment to take a family snapshot. But, in recent times I have become much better about using whatever camera I have handy for my images. Why? Because I’ve grown as a photographer and I have learned how to take pictures regardless of the camera. Some of the important things I’ve learned about is getting the right pose or using a piece of white paper to give me a touch of fill light while shooting with my iPhone and other tricks. Another very important lesson is not worrying about the last 20% of the picture quality when the first 80% is good enough for what I will be using the image for. Honestly, do you really NEED to shoot a snapshot with a five thousand dollar camera body/lens just to stick it up on Facebook?

Black and White Ireland Castle Bell

I just got back from a trip to Ireland where after much internal struggle, I took two cameras. Neither of which was one of  my expensive bodies/lenses and that was because I really didnt trust my own judgement 🙂  So what did I take to Ireland? The last time I took a D80 with a cheapo 18-55mm VR lens. This time I upgraded a bit and I took a Canon G11 which I know I can shoot well with, it was my camera of choice when I went to Oxford last year.

But  I also took a old D70s with a bargin 18-105 F3.5 VR lens. I took that because it has a bit more reach than the G11 and it has less noise than the G11. But the G11 is very convient to drag around given how much smaller it is over the DSLR.  I left my very expensive equipment at home. So why would I do that? A couple of reasons to be honest. I did not want to drag all that expensive and heavy equipment around and risk it on a trip that was personal. I make money with the D300 and the expensive glass I use with it. If something happens to it, I need to replace it and that can cause a few problems even with insurance. So I took two cheap cameras so  that if something happened, it was not a serious deal, it would be more of an annoyance. There is another reason that I like to take some of my lesser cameras on trips like this.

Portrait using bare CFLs and cheap home depot reflector

I have my share of pro level lighting and modifiers, I have become somewhat taken with very cheap lighting and shooting pretty nice portraits without even a modifier. And when I say cheap lighting, I’m talking about using eight dollar reflectors from Home Depot and single CFL (Compact fluorescent Lightbulbs) screwed into the reflector. If you know how light works and how a camera works, you can take good solid pictures even with this cheap lighting. The picture shown here is one of my experiments taken with a couple of the single CFL lights without any modifiers. This image is a lesson in that you do not need alot of expensive lighting to make a good portrait. And in this case, I did shoot the image with a Nikon D300 but I used a relatively cheap 50mm 1.4 lens. My Nikon D70s would have worked just as well.

The Strobist community has made an art form of using small battery flashes in ways that most photographers never thought of. And not just the expensive small flashes like the Nikon SB900, but ANY flash such as the five dollar reject found at Goodwill that was designed for a long dead camera brand. Light is light and once you know that, you are ten steps ahead of everybody else.

Matching polkadot  dress and hat

In this image, I used two small battery flashes, one with an umbrella and one facing a 15 dollar reflector and set -2 stops from the umbrella. I shot this on a grey background and then used a texture to give the image a nice background. This was a cheap and easy portrait without alot of money sunk into lighting modifiers, expensive strobes, power packs and all the rest.

I hope you enjoyed this post and the takeaway of the fact that you dont need expensive equipment to take nice pictures. The expensive  equipment can help you by making it easier to make images, but it is not required. And in some cases, the expensive equipment can hinder you making solid images because you dont know how to use it as well as you need to.

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Shooting Portraits with vintage cameras and film

Who says film is dead? Not by a long shot around here. I just got a roll of 120 Ektacolor Kodak Pro 160 film back from the lab and scanned in a few of the negs. I shot this roll of film using my 1958 Yashica model D TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera. This camera is older than I am by a few years and after 90 dollars for refurbishing, it takes awesome pictures with that great vintage depth of field and “feel” to the picture.

 

Portrait using Yashica 120 film camera and adjusted with photoshop CS5This picture was taken out the front door of my house and I took two of them since the girls would not sit still and were goofing around.  So it’s a bit of a marriage of modern software using CS5 Photoshop and vintage film. I did a head swap on the center subject and did some basic color balancing and sharpening.  But that is pretty much it and what you see is what came out of the camera.

It only takes a few days to get the film back from the lab and then I load up my Epson 4990 and scan away. Once the film is scanned, I treat it like any other digital film with one exception, I do not run any noise reduction software on it. The grain of the film is a significant part of the charm of the look and feel of film and I dont want to loose that to overly agressive software.

The one thing that a photographer who is not used to with film is the wide exposure range. What normally would abruptly blow out is a nice gradual blowout and even then, you can still pull back detail that a digital file just will not  have available.  The key difference is that film is analog and has several stops of latitude (except slide film) where as digital has about three stops, maybe four stops on a really good day and IF you are shooting RAW. This is why when I first starting shooting digital in 99, I had some issues with getting my exposures correct. I was used to shooting for the shadow details since I could always bring the highlights back with more printing time for that part. Digital required me to shoot for the highlights since when the numbers hit 255, there was nothing left, not even a trace unlike a film negative.

This is probably the biggest gotcha for anyone new to film who has only shot digital. It is a small but critical item for the photographer to know and to remember as they switch around from film to digital and back. But, as you can see, when you get it nailed, you get some really cool images. Long live film 🙂

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Hollywood Glamour and Noir Portraits

One of my newest projects is ramping up to offer old school style of portraits in the Hollywood Glamour and Noir style. This type of portrait was made famous by photographers such as George Hurell in the 30s, 40s and 50s.  They were a very dramatic black and white picture with very distinctive light and shadows. Many times these were shot with fresnel hot lights that normally would be used to shoot movie films. Many folks have tried to reproduce this style of image using strobes, snoots and reflectors. But while these can get close, the old school equipment has some unique qualities that add subtle but very important changes to the image.

Hollywood Hotlight Glamour

Hollywood Hotlight Glamour

Lets take a look at the one of the biggest difference between shooting with continuous lighting vs. shooting with strobes. Many photographers of the digital age have no idea what a hot light (I’m referring to continuous lighting here)  is since all they know are strobes. In their mind, who would want to use a light source that is big, bulky, can run very hot (unless shooting fluorescent bulbs ), need AC power, barn doors, scrims, dimmers and more? The “disadvantages” are many in most photographer’s minds.

There is one very important detail among everything else that the hot lights excel at. And that is the small fact that since the light is continuous,  you can shoot as fast as you can hit the shutter. So when the model hits her/his stride in providing the EMOTION of the shot, you can catch it without fear of the strobe being in the middle of recharge cycle. Most strobes require a second or two to recharge unless the photographer is shooting with multiple strobes and the power levels dropped down to encourage the faster recharge rate. Or the photographer is shooting with very expensive packs that can recharge very fast. Either way, speed costs money, how fast do you want to go?This does not really apply if the photographer is shooting posed shots where the model is set in place and needs to hold that pose specifically, I’m talking about the more organic style of shooting where the model has some latitude on the pose. In the static poses, you can afford to wait the 1-2 seconds between pops of the flash since the model’s job is to stay still till told otherwise.

Other points in the hot light’s favor, in particular, in the fresenel’s favor is the ablity to focus the beam and that the light is fairly constant over the diameter of the beam. Also,  the beam has a naturally soft edge which is great for feathering the light on the subject and the ability to very quickly and easily adjust the shape of the light with barn doors. All of this leads to a very flexible lighting solution for portraiture shoots.

One more possible advantage is that with the hot light, the photographer does have to work around the model flinching every time the strobes fire off. This is not always the case, a model used to strobes would not normally  have this issue but a new model or someone who is a non-professional paying client will not be used to the bright strobes firing off in their face every few seconds.

For my glamour project, I looked at different brands of fresnel hot lights because I really wanted to recreate the old school hollywood glamour and noir images. So I went back in time a bit and decided I would use equipment close to what was used then for my lighting. I had tried strobes and I was not at all happy with the results. What really changed my mind was a shoot I went to a few months back that used hot lights and I had very little experience then with hot lights. I had grown up on strobes so I was really curious to why we would be using such old technology. I know that the film industry used continuous lighting but I could understand that but why use them with still photography? After shooting for a few hours and seeing how I could catch very small but critical changes in pose and expression, I got it.

So I went shopping to find some hot lights of my own. I could buy used lights but the bulbs can be very expensive if you dont know what you are buying but ARRI lights are bucks. I found some ARRI clones on eBay but over at Coollights, I found the same basic clone ARRIs, scrims, nice air cushioned stands, barndoors and a good quality roller case as a package deal. The ARRI package was 1800 and Coollights package was 1,100 USD. So for a savings of 700, I have what is for all intents, three ARRI 650 frensel lights, stands, scrims and case. The big difference is the stand mount, the cut edges are not as cleanly cut as the ARRIs and the aluminum is not beaded and coated. I can live it for now. I have pictures below of both lights

So what you do with hot lights? Set your white balance to tungsten and rock and roll. One piece of advice, get a light meter. It’s far easier to meter tungsten then trying to chimp when you have ratios of lights. I also bought 3 cheap speed controllers from Harbor Freight which are perfect dimmers for the hot lights to get the lights right on the money in intensity without having to move anything. Also get some toughspun for diffusing the light.

Hot Light Glamour Shot

Hot Light Glamour Shot

This shot was taken using a set of ARRI 650s. The shot below was taken with the Coolight ARRI clones. I could not find any difference in shooting with them or in post with them.

Hot Light Noir Shot

Hot Light Noir Shot

Above all, be careful and make sure everything is secure on the set. Use sand bags and plenty of gaffers tape to secure everything down. Hot lights are, well, HOT.. very hot and will remain hot for several minutes after you turn them off. Keep in mind your model is baking under the hot lights and so breaks every 10 minutes or so is the norm. It’s also very hard for a model to look directly into a hot bright light so dont think you will put a light head on and have the model gaze into it.

A parting trick is to get the 650 hot lights and then put in the 300 watt bulb if the 650 is too much all the time. You can always do down in wattage but not up. Also, using a dimmer to cut the output by 20% or so can give the lamp about a 50% increase in lifespan. The bulbs for the ARRIs and clones will set you back about 15-20 USD and they are rated at 200 hundred hours when used at full power. Never touch the glass of the bulb with your skin, the oil will cause the bulb to get a hot spot and burn out very quickly.

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SSD and the need for SPEED

a 2.5 inch Solid state disk, E-disk from Bitmicro
Image via Wikipedia

Faster, everyone wants to go faster, have a faster computer, a faster disk drive or a faster application. Once a VERY expensive option, the SSD (Solid State Drive) drive has become mostly affordable now they are being made in large volumes. You can get them in all kinds of packaging so you can put the drive into a PCI-E slot or replace an existing hard drive. The most common use for photographer is either as a extra volume or a replacement system volume.

Before we look at the speed of a the SSD, we need to understand how they work and what makes them differently than a traditional hard drive with a rotating plater. The traditional hard drive for years has been made with a motor of some kind spinning a metal or glass platter(s) in a rigid cast metal chassis. They were heavy, took a fair around of electricity to move the platters and it took time to move the heads across the platters. Over the years, the motors were improved, the platters were made lighter and higher capacity and throughput was improved with the new interfaces like eSATA (enhanced  Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) and SAS (Serial Attached SCSI). But even with all the improvements such as 15K RPM drives, glass platters, low power electronics and very sophisticated storage algorithms, they were still a very slow device  when compared to the lighting fast access times of a memory chip.

But memory chips had some issues like they lost their contents when the power was removed and they were expensive in the number needed for any decent capacity. Time passed and now we have FLASH based chips that keep their contents even with power removed, we can write thousands of times to the same locations without the memory location burning out and they are cheap enough we can build an array of chips to supply a reasonable amount of capacity on par with the traditional hard drive.

This brings us pretty much up to date where we can buy a 240 gigabyte SSD drive in an external case with Firewire, eSATA and USB interfaces for about 500 USD. You can buy a bare 500 gigabyte SSD drive with an eSATA interface that drops in as a replacement hard drive for about 750 USD. But why you ask? why spend four times what it costs for a 1 terabyte hard disk drive? In short, SPEED.

The SSD is very fast compared to a normal hard drive, there are no moving parts so the drive is immune to shock therapy and it can be easier on power but not always. Most of us are into the speed for our applications.

For example, I have a 240 GB external SSD from OWC attached using Firewire 800 to a dual quad MacPro tower. My testing of Photoshop, Lightroom and overall usage like file copies showed some very interesting results.

  • VMware Fusion booting Windows XP takes 22 seconds from power on vs. 1:20 for a internal HD
  • Copying 55 GB of data from the MacPro to the external SSD took 19 minutes
  • Photoshop CS5 starts in 17 seconds vs 22 seconds. This does not seem like much till you start using it. Then the speed becomes very apparent between loading large files or files with alot of layers and/or high resolution. It also becomes very apparent in running actions and working with video files which means moving larger chunks of data to and from the disk.

Now the downside to the SSD used to be  the limited lifetime usage of the NAND chips. But that has been overcome to a large degree by over-capacity and by “data leveling” where the data is written out to ALL the chips over time instead of the same group time and time again which is like a traditional hard drive.Each memory location is rated at something like 100,000 writes. However, the cheaper SSD drives are not created equal and one of the corners cut is the over capacity and data leveling.

Where do SSD drives really shine? on the random access times for data. The typical read time is 0.1 ms vs. the 10-15 ms for a normal hard drive which has to move the heads to where the data should be and then wait for the platter to spin around and put the data under the heads. Random access for small files is the key place of performance for the NORMAL user of SSDs. All the bandwidth and throughput of large files is fine but on your computer, it’s mostly small files in random places on the hard drive. If the drive can not perform in this area, you will be hating life and the new SSD that you just spent a ton of money on.

Even the best SSD drives have a limited life time so using them for swap files space is normally a bad idea since the data constantly changes and is rewritten. But for the typical system drive or scratch drive, the SSD can work very well for two or three years of normal use. Any SSD drive will slow down some from the initial speed but they will still be faster than a normal hard drive spinning a disk platter.

If you are a geek and want alot of geeky details on SSD drives, performace and how they really work, check out ANANDTECH and the article I’m linking to. It’s a really good piece of detailed information on SSD drives.

Is this short blog entry a definitive article on SSD drives? not a chance but it should show you that an SSD drive is probably the number one way to improve performance on your editing workstation all the way around. Now days processors are so fast that even a two year old mid line processor is pretty good and ram is so cheap that most systems are now spec’ed with a decent starting point of RAM. So the only real bottleneck to your workflow is the disk I/O speeds. The SSD addresses that in several places and can really boost your output.

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Why Film? and Why Medium Format?

Comparison of digital camera image sensor sizes
Image via Wikipedia

With the advent of digital camera came the keening of film’s death song. I mean, who in their right mind would every want to use film again? I have a plastic card that is the size of my thumbnail and it hold hundreds of pictures and costs 20 bucks. A roll of film before processing is 4 bucks and then 15 more just to get it developed and maybe some prints. And you still need to scan it to DO anything with it? So why film? Whats the draw to film?

Because film offers a depth and clarity that most digital cameras can only dream off. Film is analog so the number of tone changes are infinite. Digital is not analog, duh.. and goes up and down in a given number of steps. In an image that offer subtle tones such as a portrait, this can become very important. This is even more important in Black and White art since a digital image starts as color and then is converted to Black and White. In film, you can shoot with Black and White film and get that gorgeous tonality that you can not get with digital. Oh sure, you can get close, sometimes very close but it’s not same. If you put a good B/W digital conversion next to a real B/W print, you can see the difference.

Often, I can get a sharper cropped image from my Mamiya 645 that cost me 500 USD for the entire kit plus three lenses than I can get from a Nikon D700 full frame DSLR that costs 3,000 USD just for the body and then add another 1 to 2 thousand for the good glass. And even after all that money spent, I still have an image that is only 35×24 mm in size. My Mamiya is a medium format camera or 120/220 which means my negative is 60×45 mm in size. This is almost double the size so if you want to print BIG and you want SHARPNESS, the medium format is the way to go. This is why in some industries such as fashion, 120/220 medium format film is still used or if you are wealthy, you can use a digital back for your medium format camera assuming you can pay up the 35,000 or so for the full size sensor. I can buy a lot of film for 35,000 USD

Digital has it’s place to be sure, I’m not about to give up having 300 plus images on a single flash card or the ability to “chimp” and see in real time what my images look like. But I’ve relearned to embrace the time and effort needed to shoot film because in some cases, it’s still better than digital.

So here is a full size scan of a 120 frame. It’s 5500 pixels from a 2400 dpi scan using my Epson 4990. It’s not a super image, I was hand holding and did a snap focus to catch the monorail but it serves the purpose of showing off how much data you can get from a 120 film frame.

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels

Here is a 200% crop of the above image. The crop is about 800 pixels in size and you can see how much detail is still there in spite of the insane crop. The 800 pixels would be a usable image for web use or even a small print if needed. Try to crop your D700 image 200% and see what you get. On my D300 crop sensor, 200% crop turns it to mush.

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels 200 percent crop

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels 200 percent crop

And here is a test shot using 100mm lens and 120 film. The film is B/W natively and it shows in the huge tonality range in the image. Smooth tones without having to fight with actions or conversions. I can amp up the tones very easily just like I used to do in the dark room using polycontrast filters and/or different types of paper. Given that I’m working with a real B/W image, the total processing time is less and I get better results.

ilford 400HP5 B/W 120 Film

ilford 400HP5 B/W 120 Film

This is NOT a religious thing with me nor am I’m a luddite who you will have pry my film from my cold dead hands. I’m someone who firmly believes in using the right tool for the task at hand. I also believe that sometimes in the rush for new technology, the benefits of the old tech is overlooked in the rush. I also firmly believe that while “good enough” is fine most times, to make the best art I can requires the use of the best tool I have access to. So while I can get “good enough” with a digital color conversion, I can do better with film and a bit more of an expense. And the few bucks more is “in the noise” when compared to the payoff.

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Controlling your light

They say that shooing portraits in broad daylight such as high noon is nuts, that it cant be done and that anyone with sense will avoid it like the plague. Most times these experts are correct but one of the things that a professional photographer has to learn is to adapt and make things work out the way they need to. So with that in mind, let me tell you about my weekend of shooting Santa Claus.

I got an email from a acquaintance asking if I would possibly be able to shoot a session involving Santa Claus, families and a public park with four days notice. I had to juggle things but I replied yes, for a small fee and the list of names of the families with their email addresses. Now shooting this event was going to be a royal b**ch since it was going to be a  public park and starting at 11AM then running till 1PM. No tent, no cover of any kind. The last four years showed snapshots taken with on camera flash blasting the families to overpower the sun. Last years was pretty underexposed since it had been a grey day and the camera didnt get the settings right.

I decided to raise the bar and execute this event better than anyone there had seen before. I have a very cool Christmas themed muslin backdrop that is pretty decent quality and I have several 20lb sand bags. I also have reflectors but no portable strobes yet. I was bummed but I could not find a battery pack to run my Photogenics or get a small generator on such short notice. So I ended up using my SB800s instead.

I put up the backdrop, doubled it over to keep light from leaking through the back and had the back facing the sun directly to get the most shade I could. I put 25lbs of sand on each leg (ended up with 50lbs before the shoot was over) plus two 10 lb bags clipped to the bottom of the shortened backdrop to keep it from flapping around. I did not care about lighting it separately as there was so much ambient light, I didnt need to. On the SB800, I used a 1/2 cut CTO gell to squash the bluewhite “daylight” look of the flash. I prepped two more flashes with batteries ready to go. I had a spare body prepped and ready to go.

I put Santa in his chair and metered him using my older but reliable Minolta meter, the camera meter gets very confused with this type of shooting so I dont trust the brains of the camera. I then put everything on manual, dialed it in and shot off several images with my 17-55mmF2.8. I ended up going with my 1.4 50mm at F10 and ISO 200. The shadow was just long enough to keep me in shade without too much flare in the lens. The images did need their black points pushed way up as they were flat. I knew that from the first few pictures. I used a gold reflector to throw a dash of golden light on Santa Claus and the clients. The SB800 was dialed down -1/2 exposure compensation to avoid blowing out skin tones knowing that by shooting raw, I can easily dial it in.

You can see here the extreme differences between the sun and shade of the backdrop. I took this with my iPhone to avoid screwing with my numbering sequence on my shooting body.

Park shooting set up

Park shooting set up

So I ended up shooting about 40 families over three hours. Everyone had a lot of fun and everyone was blown away by the backdrop. But when I showed off the images, jaw dropped. The images really looked good and nobody believed that they were shot at noon and in a park. The grass was not a problem because 99% of the shots were “head shots” style.

Santa Claus with vintage treatment

Santa Claus with vintage treatment

Final Santa Claus image in park

Final Santa Claus image in park

Now that we had the shots, I used BayPhoto’s ROES software to make up the Christmas cards. My client was giving away a free Christmas card and we settled on the 4×8 photo card. I used Bay’s templates and treatments to make a simple card with a place for my friend to sign his name.

Christmas Card from Belmont shoot

Christmas Card from Belmont shoot

So in the end, with about 400 dollars in studio stuff that I already had from past shoots and 30 minutes of set up time, I was able to produce killer event shots of Santa Claus in a public park at high noon. I did this by using quality parts, by knowing how my equipment works and most importantly, how to work around problems on the fly. Were the images perfect out of the camera? No, they were not. They were flat and washed out even though they were correctly exposed based on the histogram. Thats partial due to the 50mm lens I shot with it. Partial from having to be very careful shooting into the light even though I had shade, there was still some spillover from the top of the background. But with shooting RAW, a few simple adjustments applied to each image and they all snapped into place.

So dont take the common wisdom as gospel like “you cannot shoot portraits at noon” or you can not use onboard flash effectively and so on. When you know your equipment and you know how light works, you can do amazing things when others say you can’t.  I have a happy client and 50 new possible clients who saw me shoot under difficult circumstances and still nail the shots.

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