Tag Archives: Ansel Adams

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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Westcott Model Shoot

The vendor, Westcott, sell various lighting and light modifiers to photographers and studios. They are a constant vendor at Photoshopworld and other Photography related shows. One of the most popular features of their booth has been the model shoot where a rep will demo product using a live model and then allow photographers to try their hand at a fast shoot using the same setup and equipment.

I think they just raised the bar in a big way by having four “sets” set up where they had live models and at times a still life available to shoot using the Westcott equipment. There were simple rules, you could not touch the model or the lights but you could direct the model on how you think a pose might work. This time you can submit your final images to be a possible catalog cover.

Popular? You bet!!!  They had photographers coming out of the woodwork with everything from the high end Canon/Nikons to the cell phone with any number of camera in between. it was amazing to shoot and even more so just to watch. It was pretty clever in a way since you can only really make the photograph yours by model position and post work. Since the lights were fixed, you had to move the model to change the mood and you had to use some solid techniques in post to “fix” things like lights being in the image, fashion model fixing, getting rid of backdrop seams and so on.

Here are some of my shots along with a description of what I had to do in post to get to the finished or close to the finished image. Most of what I did to these images is not much different than what I do in my wedding shoots or portrait sessions here in my studio in Orange. When I shoot, many times I know when I take the shot, that I will need to do something in post like removing something or enhancing the bride and so on. Sometimes I make a mental note that a certain picture will need something specific because I know it’s a cool shot but needs editing to make it cool.

Here is my Catwoman shot in the raw. No retouching, no post of any kind except to convert it from camera RAW to JPEG to post here on my blog.

Catwoman in Gotham City RAW

Catwoman in Gotham City RAW

You can see from the above shot that there is quite a bit of work needed in post to make a usable image. There is a light in the upper left, the bike is on carpet, the background is too short and does not touch the carpet just to name a few things. Here is the final version or very close to my final version of Catwoman

Catwoman in Gotham Final

Catwoman in Gotham Final

I edited out all the extra stuff like the lights and reflector panel. I used content aware fill and free transform to stretch and edit the background. I used the Lightroom Graduated Filter with a blue tint to darken and add mood to the background. I added a concrete texture to the carpet to make it look more like asphalt. I did a fair amount of selective burning in like the front rim of the bike which was too bright. I tweaked the intensity to get the deep reds and dark blacks. I added a dark vignette around the image to help blend in the transition between backdrop and carpet. I think it turned out pretty well 🙂

In the next shot, we have a retro looking “Pin Up Queen” but we need some work here too. There is a red fabric that is competing for attention, we have tattoos on the model and we have some unsightly bulges on the bustline and arm.

Pin Up Queen RAW

Pin Up Queen RAW

And here is my final image after using several tools and some hand work.

Pin Up Queen Final

Pin Up Queen Final

I used liquidify to smooth out the bustline and arm. I used Portraiture to smoothout the skin and give a glamor look to the over all image. I removed the red sash hanging down in the background and I removed the tats showing on each arm.

Here are some of the rest of my shots from the Westcott model shoot. Westcott even had a couple of still lifes for those who do not like shooting people. As you can see, many times you need good post processing to really bring out the best of a picture whether it be a still life, a fashion shoot or even a wedding. I’ve seen good images with bad post processing and they just do not work well. I’ve seen marginal images but with excellent post processing and they work pretty well.  Taking the shot is just one step to having a killer image as the final result. Ansel Adams was a master of this and understood clearly that the raw image was only the first step to showing the world your vision.

Thank to Westcott for putting all of this together and letting the photographers have alot of fun over the past three days shooting gorgeous models on fun sets.

Queen of Hearts RAW

Queen of Hearts RAW

Queen of Hearts FINAL

Queen of Hearts FINAL

Steam Punk RAW

Steam Punk RAW

Steam Punk FINAL

Steam Punk FINAL

Natural Pair RAW

Natural Pair RAW

Natural Pair FINAL

Natural Pair FINAL

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