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Christmas Photography Tips

Its soon time to end shooting the Christmas lights for the season. So get out for the next week and grab a few shots of your favorite lights to enjoy over the next year. Do not settle for the average under blacked out pictures or the really over -exposed shots where the Christmas lights are burned out blobs. With a few simple tricks, you can nail some pretty good images. Now, with as much of a fan I am about shooting with my iPhone, this is one time I would recommend a DSLR or micro-four-thirds for the best results. You can beat the smartphone into submission but you really need to be able to adjust all aspects plus be able to use a real flash with some gels. I use Rosco for my gels and you can use other brands but that is who I stick with.

Here are a few tips and tricks for getting the “Oh WOW” shots during the holidays:

  1.  So unless you have a full frame (FX) rig, embrace the grain and shoot at a high ISO. These images were shot at ISO 2000 or higher and I used Noiseware afterwards in post to clean them up.
  2. Read the manual and learn how to shoot on a custom white balance. My D300 shoots nicely at 3000K and while this worked for the normal light bulbs, the LEDs were all over the map as are some of the small lights. So be prepared in post to work it out.
  3. Gel your flash. I cannot stress this enough. You need to color balance the “daylight” flash to something closer to the Christmas lights or you WILL get that vampire look. I used a 1/4 cut CTO (color Temperature Orange) but I should have used 1/2 cut CTO. The 1/4 cut and 1/2 cut refers to the density of the color on the gel sheet. 1/4 is lighter than 1/2.
  4. Shoot with a stablized lens or use a Pentex with a stablized body ūüôā I shoot Nikon so it’s VR lenses for my. The new Olympus for example, has 5 axis stabilization. It’s pretty amazing what you can do with it at night by hand.
  5. You want to drag the shutter a bit when using the flash to get the pretty background lighting.
  6. Dont forget to shoot wide and get some details. Some folks really put in the effort on their lights and it shows in the details.
  7. Be ready for the unexpected shot. I had “Santa” come cruising by on his motorcycle as part of the visiting crowd.
  8. Shooting manual is where it’s at to get the best shots. Very little about shooting Christmas lights at night is considered a “normal” photography so most camera automatic settings are wrong. For much of the time I will shooting at ISO 2000, 1/40 second and 5.6 aperture. The flash power would vary from 1/128 to 1/32. This strikes a nice balance between depth of field, shallow depth of field, higher shutter speed to combat shake and noise at the higher ISOs. Newer camera or FX cameras can shoot from ISO 6400 to 50,000 without much noise now.
  9. Get pictures of the faces. The expressions on the kids faces are priceless and are the money shots from something like this.
  10. I dont have to contend with snow but snow works like a giant reflector. You will need to really pay attention to your settings when popping off the flash to avoid blowing out the image.

I have some shots here from around my own neighborhood. Enjoy the holiday and Merry Christmas from us to you.

Lights, Lights and more Lights

We dont need no stink'n snow

Adoration

Window Lights

Impromtu Carolers

Blue Lights

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Repurposing a light box to be a light table

I saw a very interesting blog posting on how to shoot flowers using a light box. I took a different approach since I did not want to build a cardboard box so anything else. I took my large softbox and flipped it upside down. I could do this because I use C stands with boom arms and it becomes very easy to change the orientation of a modifier. I just made sure that the legs were in the right position to take up the low weight and added a few sand bags for good measure.

I then put a piece of clear plexiglass on top of the softbox or now light table and put my subject on top of that. I have a Photogenics 1250 strobe but now I would pull it and put in the 600 instead. The 1250 is too strong even turned down as low as it can go. I plan to try it with white plexiglass whereas I’m shooting with clear right now. The white should be worth a couple of stops.

White on White Lilly

 

 

I had a second mini softbox using an SB800 in SU mode on a monopod that I held over the subject. I manually set the SB800 to something around 1/8 power and about 3 feet high. I tried straight on, sideways and all kinds of angles. The best results seemed to be feathering the small soft box slightly to pick up some edge shadows.

I used a pair of Atlas pocket wizard clones on this shoot only because they were handy and my real PWs were packed away. I shot with:

 

SB800 flash mounted to small softboxLight table set up shot

Next time I will put the small light box on a second C stand instead of holding it. That was just too much trouble but I was in a real hurry to try this and get back to the family outside. The ladder was the only way I could get enough hight to shoot down on my subject, anywhere else and I was shooting across it and it did not work nearly as well.

 

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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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Posted in event photography, Hardware, photography, portraits, technique, training Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Come Sail Away

One thing that a photographer needs to learn (truthfully, most people need this) is how to make lemonade from life’s lemons tossed your way. I had the absolute misfortune of being taken off my flight at Heathrow airport due to the ash cloud shutdown of Europe’s airspace on April 15, 2010. We were loaded and ready to go when we were told “everybody off”. I was one of the lucky ones, I was able chase down my luggage and clear customs with relative speed, only about three hours. Some other had not gotten their luggage in three days after the event.

Two days after Heathrow shutdown

Two days after Heathrow shutdown

3rd day of ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED

3rd day of ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED

I had booked my flight with a very good travel agent, Linda Christen since I was going overseas and past experience has taught me to avoid the self service sites like Orbitz and Travelocity like the plague. She was able to dig up a room at a local hotel when all hotels were saying “we are full”. It was not a cheap room but definitely cheaper than many around it and the neighborhood sucked being right at the airport. However, it was clean and beat having to go to London proper which was twenty miles or so away then having to either cab it or take the underground back each I needed to be at the airport. During the week it took me to get out of Heathrow, I had over nine flight cancellations in six days. I had to extend my room four times. And even when they opened the airport, my airline still cancelled flights and would not take new reservations due to the existing flights already being booked up weeks in a advance. Some airlines were and still are offering specials to booked passengers who are willing to cancel their flights to free up seats. So it was looking something the first week of May before I could really consider getting out.

First Flight from Heathrow in 5 days

First Flight from Heathrow in 5 days

This brings up something very important to anyone traveling not just photographers, make damn sure you have a good line of credit. I brought my ATM card which is how I normally pay for things but I also had brought my business AmericanEx card plus one MasterCharge with a fairly good limit and nothing on it. As it turns out, since I had the MC card AND I had called them ahead of time to let them know I was going to be in the UK, I had zero issues with using the card, even to charge the cruise to it. All sorts of people around me were struggling with cards maxed out or not being accepted because they were overseas and so on. The good thing is by putting the cruise on a single empty card, I know exactly what part of this debacle is the cruise and which part is the hotel. Since my flight was booked on AmEx card, I might get some of it back via the built in insurance policy but we shall see.

Since I had been in Oxford on a holiday to see my eldest daughter, I had not planned on being out of country more than 6 days. So by week two, laundry was becoming an issue. I had been able to take advantage of the dorm laundry when I was visting so I had a buffer of a few days of clean clothes. However, it also that meant that in a few days I was in the shower washing shirts and underwear while getting myself clean. Since I never knew when I could leave, I could not risk the paid laundry since it took two days. My hotel did not have any kind of gift shop, so I had to shop at other and nicer hotels to buy razors and other supplies. This was a one mile hike to get the closest one and I found a minimart at a carwash that had some soap and sold cheap boxed sandwiches to avoid the twenty pound lunch at the hotel.

In the end, a very crazy idea that I had on saturday night paid off. I had sent an email to my travel agent to see about booking passage on the Queen Mary 2 which I had read on the internet was leaving in a few days out of Southhampton. And yes, she thought I was nuts but she humored me and she put my name on the wait list of two hundred people. This was before the ongoing flight cancellations all week. I had done it as a “last resort” type of thing and when I got a call on Weds saying there was a cabin available, the waitlist had over 1,500 people. I had a flight for thursday but American Airlines would not confirm the flight would even take place. As it turns out, it did not take place. So for about 2/3s of the price of staying in a hotel for yet another week plus bad food, I was able to get a cabin on the biggest and the only true Ocean Liner left in the world.

My ride home - Queen Mary 2

My ride home - Queen Mary 2

Oh yes, I am terribly underdressed for this event. In fact, as I write this entry, everyone around me is getting ready for Captian’s Night which I have zero chance of attending as it’s tux only. I dont even have slacks much less a tux, I have good working jeans that travel well ūüôā But the food at the buffet is very good and my jeans are perfectly acceptable there.

Queen Mary 2 Grand Staircase

Queen Mary 2 Grand Staircase

Now, what does all this have to do with photography? Plenty, the photographic opportunities aboard the QM2 are amazing. I have seven days to shoot, shoot and shoot some more. There so much art and architecture on the ship to shoot that it’s a perfect place to practice and refine your craft without the pressure of time.

Queen Mary 2 Sunset on the first night

Queen Mary 2 Sunset on the first night

The QM2 has wireless in most cabins and in most public places. If you buy a block of eight hours, you will pay about thirty five cents a minute for internet. Not cheap but it’s enough to get email and upload small sized images to sites like Flickr or a blog. A side benifit of the wireless is that while the Queen has cell coverage, I can use Skype to call home. Why use Skype and not my cell? because even with international roaming, the voice charges are 1.40 USD per MINUTE and the data rates are 11.00 USD per megabyte. By contrast, I paid 167.00 USD for 8 hours of internet time which works out to be .35 cents per minute. Skype is free plus the .35 cents per minute so this is a no brainer.

This leads to yet another piece of advice for really anyone nowadays traveling. Bring a laptop or even a netbook that is fully loaded with the various applications like Skype, FTP, a couple of different browsers and emergency software like file recovery and/or flash card recovery software. In my own case, I had just gotten a new 13 inch Macbook Pro but I not had a chance to load all my favorite items on it and I decided pretty much at the last minute to take old reliable which is a 15 inch Macbook Pro from three years ago. A very good choice on my part since I have all my normal software loaded so I can edit and adjust images, post to my blog, phone home and more.

So with the travel tips finished, lets move on to shooting pictures on a cruise ship. On the ship, one problem is that they use a type of florescent light that is very yellow in color and will wreak havoc on your white balance. The best thing is to shoot RAW and correct in post. Lighting inside tends to be dim so ISO 800 is more the rule to get a decent shutter speed while shooting at F2.8 to F4.

The lens of choice so far after three days of shooting is my 11-24mm F4. So much of the ship is expansive and you really need the wide angle to bring it all in. I had my 17-55 F2.8 but so far I have not had a need for it. Another excellent item to have is a really good point and shoot. I brought my new G11 with me as a test and it has been getting quite the unintended workout in the past three weeks. The camera is perfect for most shooting on the ship but it has a very hard time with bright and dark in the same image. When the lights blow out, they blow big and fringe badly. So in some cases, I have taken my D300 and gone back to locations to get nicer shots that I had shot first with my G11.

Queen Mary 2 Quiet Time

Queen Mary 2 Quiet Time

The color issues can be adjusted in post so long as you are shooting RAW. With JPEGs, it will almost impossible to correct well. What is interesting is that while I see it as a pale yellow, the camera sees it as a vivid yellow, very intense. This ship also has halegon spots all over and when the two lights mix, it’s very tough to get a good white balance. I brought a set of gels with me so I will probably break out the SB800 and my gels to see if I can gel the lights. For that matter, I might just tape the gel to my G11 for a fast test. I brought a small roll of gaffers tape, dont you travel with some wrapped around a sharpy? You should!

Something else to consider when on the road, I have bought what I called “Extended Manuals” from Amazon via their Kindle service. I then use the iPhone version of the Kindle software to have these manuals for the D300 and G11 at the ready for reference. This is very important for times like now when I’m toting a new camera along for the first time.

Another invaluable accessory that I bought recently was the Luma camera strap. I also bought an extra lanyard for it. So I have one camera strap for two cameras. And when I have to clear security like getting on to the Queen Mary for example, it’s a simple matter of unclipping the lanyard and then reclipping it when I’m done. No more trying to lift a strap over my head, hat, jacket etc. To be honest while the Luma is awesome for the G11, I prefer my Rapid Strap for the D300, even more so with a long lens on it. The lanyard will twist and let the bounce around quite a bit on my hip whereas the BlackRapid strap tends to hold the camera against my hip and in the same position all the time.

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Posted in Hardware, lenses, photography, technique, Travel Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

FundySOS shooting, lighting and biz seminar

The crew at Left Turn Studio (FundySOS and TouchFlow) put on a two day seminar ¬†called “Two guys that shoot” which covered alot of information. They hit on the business of running a studio and make money at it, how to market, what to market, how to shoot portraits of various types and do it cheaply. Kevin as probably forgotten more about lighting than many photographers will ever know. He shots have been on many bridal magazines, shot fashion for years and quite a bit more over 20 some odd years. Fundy is not much behind Kevin in world class experience as a photographer, teacher, studio manager etc. Together, they are a quite the pair in the studio and very successful at what they do.

The seminar was a mix of informal “class” teaching and real shooting with models, lights, flashes, beauty dishes, sunlight, shade etc. The information was very clear and concise and they took us through the entire process of shooting a modeling session to downloading, workflow, basic retouching in Lightroom then into Photoshop to use their own software to build out albums for the sale.

Some sample shots I did while in the class follows. Mine are typical of the results achieved by everyone there. And both Fundy and Kevin took the time to make sure everyone achieved good results and knew WHY they achieved them.
Jo - Jazz's Mum

This model was great to work with and we were stunned to find out she had just had her fifth child several months ago. In this shot, we used daylight from the storefront windows and a dual fluorescent bulb fixture from home depot with a silver reflector by her head to add just a touch of fill.

Jazz - railway

This was a former senior client who came back to model for us as a “senior” and was super to work with outside in the cool day. We used natural light and off camera flash for these shots. The off camera flash shots were taken with the flash in TTL but the camera set to full manual. All the reasons and settings were fully explained to us even if we already knew most of it. It was nice to hear it again and pick up all kinds of information on shooting seniors and what makes a successful modeling shoot for a senior album.

Jazz

This shot was taken in the classic LTS style of using flat light. This is one of the key concepts that the two guys that shoot (TGTS) really push during the two days. Flat light is your best friend for a flattering picture. It fills shadows, smoothes out the ski, helps keep the bags away from the eyes and more. Men can get away with more directional light but overall flat is where it’s at for a clean portrait. We saw this outside and inside the studio shooting with strobes.

Jo - B/W conversion

This was another shot using flat light from the front and set high shooting down. We also used white V cards and white seamless paper for the background. The conversion was done in LR and then tweaked in Photoshop with a couple of techniques plus Touchflow B/W Punch action. I used surface blur with a mask to smooth out the skin and pulled up the black point to get cleaner blacks.

Posted in Album Software, Business Aids, commercial photography, editing, editing software, photography Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |

Your camera flash is your friend

Something I hear alot is that people are literally afraid of using their flash. They are very used to the death white glow that the typical flash shot imparts to the unsuspecting victim. And to be honest, most of the shots I’ve seen with a flash used, look really bad. Blown out white face, red eyes like the hounds of Baskerville and black background provides the fodder for way too many scrapbooks.

Whats worse is when someone, say, gets married and is handed pictures from the “professional” that look just like this. Here is someone who took money to take “professional” pictures and did not give back anything different than the proverbial “Uncle Bob” can do. This is just not to be accepted by any paying customer. The pro should be comfortable using his/her equipment and they certainly should know how to use it properly. As you will see below, it really does not take alot of knowledge to get really nice results and it certainly does not take super expensive equipment to get good results.

It really does not have to be that way at all. A flash is just another source of light, just like the sun or a flashlight or a candle. You just need to learn a few things about flash and how to manage it.

The first thing to remember is that the “P for Professional” setting is really not your friend on this occasion. You are much better off setting the camera to (gasp) manual. And those with the point and shoots are already whining about “what about me?”.. never fear, many camera nowadays have a manual setting that will give some type of adjustment.

The setting we are most concerned with will be either on the camera under a flash menu or on the flash itself if you have an external flash like the Nikon 600/800/900. What you want to do is find where to turn down the exposure at least one stop, possibly two stops. The most direct result of this is that the blown white look will fade considerably.

On the camera, we want manual or at least partial manual control so you can do cool things like set the aperture and/or set the shutter. Most times the shutter will be selected for you at 1/160 of second. But nicer cameras like the D90/D300 have a bit of wiggle room on this. The topic of radio linked flashes, off camera flash etc will not be addressed here. David Hpbby at strobist.com has done this in depth so go over there for off camera info. I may write something up later about my own adventures in off camera flash use.

Something to remember is that even in broad daylight, a flash, even the built in flash is a very useful item to have around. It will fill in the really harsh shadows from the sun and make for a much nice pictures. Of course, the automatic setting completely wigs out in this type of shoot so you will need to overide some of the setting manually. For example, on most of the newer Nikon DSLRs like the D50, D60, D90 etc, you can set the built in flash to manual and then dial in the power like 1 stop, 1/2, 1/4, 1/16 etc. I find that shooting in noon sun, a setting of F8, ISO200 and around 1/16-1/4 flash works very well for filling in a face from about 4-5 feet away.

Here is a case of using the built in flash to fill the shadows on the face while backlit from the noon sun
Kyle - Castmember on Big Thunder Mountain

This was taken using the built in “pop up” flash set to manual. The camera was also set to manual because it was very confused with the strong backlighting. So my first exposure was on automatic which I noted the settings then locked them in manual. The I set the flash to manual and took a SWAG at how much to use. It took a couple of tries to get the fill exactly to my liking. Then I was ready when the victim, errr.. subject was in the position I wanted to shoot.

In this next shot taken in the shade, I used my SB800 mounted to my camera with the camera set in APERTURE mode because I wanted to blur the background. The flash was set to TTL but dialed back a couple of stops because I wanted just a touch of light. This shot is not beyond most people’s skill level since it was all automatic except the aperture and even that did not need to be locked, really. The magic was telling the flash to knock down the power a couple of stops.

Chromed Megan

This last image was alot of fun. I bounced the flash straight up and off the eaves back down onto the player which then the white piano bounced a bit of light back into his face. In this case, I went the other way and pushed the flash power up knowing I would lose alot of it with the 10 foot high bounce. The camera was set to manual after shooting a test image to work out the exposure for the background lights. The flash made up the difference to light up the player.

Ragtime

None of these shots were “rocket science” and they all used common accessories like the SB800 or just the built in tools like the pop flash on the camera.

This last image was taken with a Canon SB500 point and shoot. Not even a new one, this camera is three or fours years old now and kinda of beat up ūüôā The subject was backlit and so I flicked it to manual and made the flash go off in spite of what the brain of the camera was saying. It did take a bit of work in post to clean it up and dial it in perfectly but that took less than 2 minutes. And I have a very nice shot of something I had not seen before at Disneyland using nothing better than what is kicking around in many purses or pockets.

I'll take a double-double

There are other tricks like putting a piece of white kleneex over the flash of the P/S camera to diffuse the hot spot, put a piece of gel over the flash to help color balance the flash but these are topics for a different entry.

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