Tag Archives: Hardware

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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Atlas, Pocket Wizard Clones by Phottix

One of the signs of “making it” for a budding professional photographer is the purchase of some PocketWizard wireless triggers. When you trade in the ebay specials that you learned on to the pro gear, it’s a really nice feeling. But, that feeling can be costly with a PW costing about 170.00 USD each. The company called Phottix has developed and released a new wireless trigger that looks and feel alot like a PW trigger. Same shape, same size, mostly the same controls but some differences. The biggest is the price, the Atlas costs about 90.00 USD and includes cables plus a set of brand name AA batteries. The unit itself also has some differences for the better and I will detail them in a few moments. One difference to point out right away is the metal hotshoe!!  No more cheap plastic hotshoes which are the bane of the Pocket Wizard.

Atlas Wireless Triggers

Atlas Wireless Triggers

The picture above shows the unboxing of the new trigger. You can see they are well packages with Duracell batteries, cables, lanyard and a decent set of directions. The buttons are well labeled and easy to read. The build quality is excellent, in some ways, I think it’s better than the real Pocket Wizard. Two additions are very welcomed for photographers. The first is a metal tripod mount and the second is the metal hot shoe mount. Both are incredible useful in the field and even in the studio. The radio runs on cheap AA cells and work very well on a diet of PowerX Imedion AA 2400 low discharge cells.

There are two plugs in the top, one for controlling the flash OUT and a second for flash IN/OUT. These in and out ports will let you daisy chain strobes to be triggered by one Atlas.

The units support WRS mode or Wireless Remote Sync which lets you shoot the flash off AND trigger the camera remotely. You can lock the unit down as a transmitter only to  help avoid interference simple by pressing the test/shutter button while you turn on the Atlas. When you have a red light on status, release the button and the status LED should now go to green and blink green once a second. When in transmit and receive mode, it will blink once every two seconds.

The Atlas has four channels to choose from and WRS uses two at a time. For normal use, you just need to put them all on the same channel. The Atlas is compatible with two Sekonic light meters, the L-358 and the L-758R so long as both are using the RT-32 transmitter. While the Atlas trigger frequency is compatible with PocketWizard’s MiniTT1, FlexTT5, MultiMax, Plus II (& probably the original/old PocketWizards) for both sending and receiving, I was not able to get the Atlas to trigger the PW PlusII in a fast test. I plan to get a few PWs to test further with and see what happens, I’m told the Atlas will work with PWs. I am thinking that the PW can trigger the Atlas but not the other way around.

The range I’ve tested to so far is a bit over 100 feet line of sight without any misfires. I did a test where the flash was inside the house about 10 feet and behind double pane low E glass. The low E glass tends to attenuate my radios and I imagine it does the same thing to the Atlas triggers but I went 75 feet outside and still had solid triggering without any misfires. I plan to wander over one of the parks in the next week or so and really stretch out the range. But in truth, 100 feet is about the furtherest I have been from my flashes when shooting remote. My ebay clones used to start to miss about then even more so with a low battery.

So in the past month I’ve used these triggers on my D300 bodies, my G11, my Photogenics and my SB800s without any issues at all. They have worked every time and have been very reliable. Not bad for a 100 bucks a unit. Given that the eBay triggers were 40 plus shipping and required mods to really work well, these are a deal. What I can not tell is how well they will hold up under abuse like being dropped and kicked around.

Here are some individual shots of the Atlas. These were taken with Atlas triggers on my Canon G11 triggering a Photogenic 1250 flash with a 48 inch octabank. The white background is just white construction paper propped up in the back

Phottix Atlas Complete Kit

Phottix Atlas Complete Kit

Phottix Atlas Side and Top View

Phottix Atlas Side and Top View

Phottix Atlas Top View

Phottix Atlas Top View

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Using your small flash in broad daylight

A flashcube fitted to a Kodak Instamatic camera.
Image via Wikipedia

Shooting flash in the broad daylight always seems to bother people for some reason. I think that people are afraid that it’s complicated or some black art that is impossible to master. Listen, flash is just a self contained light that is run by batteries. Nothing magically about it or really hard to understand. The light from a flash works exactly the same way sunlight works or any other light. It has color, it will drop off in intensity over distance (square inverse law) and you can shape it. Probably the biggest reason people are suspect of flash in the daytime is that most camera can not do it well so you get blown out images or the traditional “hot spot” in the face or it’s still dark even though the flash fired.

To really use flash in the daytime, get manual. Forget that you spent a large sum of money on a camera that can virtually think for it’s self, put the dial on M for manual and learn how to set things up the way YOU want it. When I learned to shoot film, there was a rule pounded in to our collective heads. It’s been somewhat forgotten now by the users of digital but it is called the “Sunny Rule of 16”. For a bright sunny day, set the camera to ISO (ASA) 100, shutter to 1/125 (1/100) and F16 on the lens. That will get you 95% there for a properly lit exposure in bright sunlight. Once you have that, you can adjust each parameter and work out the others pretty easily.

What we need to know is that when shooting flash on a sunny day (or any other time) is that your shutter speed controls the ambient light and that the aperture controls the flash exposure. Why? Because the flash duration can be something like 1/42,000 (1/128 power) of a second which is way faster than your camera’s shutter at it’s best. Even at full power, the typical small flash is about 1/2000 of a second flash duration. And when you are shoot at 1/250-1/320 sync speeds, the flash is still way faster than your shutter speed.  Since aperture controls how MUCH  light comes in, you can adjust the intensity of the flash by either opening or closing the blades. Wide open is more light in and stopped down means alot less light is coming in.

The shutter on the other hand controls how LONG the light will hit the sensor or film. Short shutter speed means less exposure and longer shutter means more exposure. So if the flash is 1/32,000 of second long, when your shutter is at 1/200 second, you will get how ever much flash light there will be in that 1/32,000 of a second. What you CAN adjust with the shutter is the AMBIENT light. Or in this case, how bright the daylight will be. Slow shutter means lots of exposure and a short shutter means less ambient light. In the two images below, I shot both with exactly the same shutter and ISO but I added a Neutral Density Filter X2 which works just like pushing the aperture to F22 ( 1 stop) which my 50mm can not do.

Normal ISO 100 1/125 F16

Normal ISO 100 1/125 F16

Normal ISO 100 1/125 F16 with Neutral Density X2

Normal ISO 100 1/125 F16 with Neutral Density X2

This shows how the aperture adjusts the ambient light while the shutter and ISO stayed the same. What does that mean for us with a flash? Well, all things being equal, you can dial in your exposure with the flash by tweaking on the F stop. Of course, you need to have some range to do this, about F5.6 to start would be nice and thats tough in broad daylight. But not impossible. Lets do some math 🙂

If I start at ISO 100 and 1/125 shutter with F16 and I want to go lower on my F stop, how can I do that? I can drop ISO which I can not right now and I can UP the shutter speed controls my ambient light. So I raise my shutter 1/250, thats one F stop and I can cheat a bit and go to 1/320 shutter, thats two full F stops. So now I’m at ISO 100, 1/320 shutter and F8. With a neutral desity filter X2, I can go down one more F stop to F 5.6 which is right where I want to be. My exposure has not changed from the first set at ISO 100, 1/125 and F16. So now I have less depth of field, I have about 3 stops to work the ambient light to darken skies etc.

So this means that I have the ability to dial down the sky and use my flash to light up my subject even though it’s high noon or if I want a bit more drama at sunset. OK.. ok.. so enough about this ambient light stuff, how do we use a flash?  Pretty easy when you think about it. When you have the ISO at 100, the shutter at 1/125 and F16 for your aperture, the typical small flash like the SB800 needs to be eight feet away and full power to give the proper exposure.

No Flash ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F16

No Flash ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F16

SB800 Full Power Flash  8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F16

SB800 Full Power Flash 8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F16

SB800 Full Power Flash  8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F13 NDx2

SB800 Full Power Flash 8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F13 NDx2

You can see that we can easily light up the subject with an SB800 from about 8 feet away. But what if we wanted to use less than full power? Or get depth of field? Easily done by juggling the parameters. Lets bring the flash in to about 4 feet and cut the power to 1/2. Nothing else has changed. ISO, Shutter  and F stop are still the same. I did zoom in a bit tighter so you can see the lighting closely.

SB800 1/2 Power Flash  8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F13 NDx2

SB800 1/2 Power Flash 8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/250 F16

Now what if I wanted to darken the background a bit more. Remember, ambient light is controlled by my shutter so I will raise my shutter one stop to 1/320 which is about the max I can go with my wireless triggers before I start cutting off the image with the shutter shadow.

SB800 1/2 Power Flash  8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/320 F16 NDx2

SB800 1/2 Power Flash 8 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/320 F16

You can see the exposure of the subject is the same but the background went a bit darker. So now what happens if I use one of those plastic diffusers? The kind that comes with the SB800 and snaps onto the front? Well, it means I can move my flash way in close and get softer light since the size of the light source relative to the subject has gotten alot bigger than when it was 8 feet away. I’m still at 1/2 power, broad daylight with the same shutter and ISO settings. Just closer and with the diffuser.

SB800 1/2 Power Flash  2 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/320 F16 With diffuser

SB800 1/2 Power Flash 2 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/320 F16 With diffuser

SB800 1/2 Power Flash  2 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/320 F16 Without diffuser

SB800 1/2 Power Flash 2 Ft ISO 100 Shutter 1/320 F16 Without diffuser

You can easily see that the diffuser eats a fair amount of light. But the tradeoff is that you can get much better quality of light when you are so close like this that it’s a pretty good trade off.

I hope you can see from the images that understanding daylight use of the flash is not that hard once you keep some basic rules in your head. It’s not very magically but it is very useful. These images are just simple demonstrations of the ideas but I will be putting up some real portrait work later using these same ideas. So get out there with your flash and light something up.

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Call of the iPad

iPad with on display keyboard
Image via Wikipedia

Well, I’ve had my iPad for a few months now and my impressions are pretty much the same as they have been when I first got it. I still view it as a toy because of some limitations.  It has some outstanding features but the issues are important too.  I should preface this with the fact that I have about a dozen Macs around here and everyone in the family (the adults at least) all use iPhones and I have and love my AppleTV. So you might consider me something of a “fanboy” of Apple products. So when I complain about the iPad, it’s not a non-apple person whining, it’s a strong supporter of Apple products who feels that Apple seriously dropped the ball.

Good points of the iPad

  • It’s sexy.. oh so sexy. It has a nice feel and heft to it that has become the trademark of all things Apple of late.
  • Really nice screen (we will address a fault in a minute)
  • Long battery life
  • Stable IOS running it
  • Super easy user interface
  • Awesome way to show off pictures
  • Reasonably good e-reader
  • Works very well on WiFi
  • Snappy response to finger input
  • Never a crash of the IOS in the past three months

Now, the downside of the iPad

  • Zero expandability – no USB port (camera readers does NOT count) – no microSD – nothing
  • The screen shows every stinking fingerprint known to man. So showing pictures requires a cleaning each and every time
  • Useless is bright sunlight
  • Can not take decent notes on it with a finger tip and no provisions for a stylus. I dont know about you, but trying to write using my  finger tips is just about impossible.
  • Cost – The fully decked out 3G and Wifi with 64 Gig of memory is over 900 bucks. And since you can not expand it in any way, the 64 Gig is almost a requirement
  • Lack of native way to print (even the new wireless printing is going to be limited to the newest version of leopard)
  • Lack of any corporate account (according to AT/T)
  • A big fault to me is having to use iTunes to move things around and that the iPad is tied to a given copy of iTunes. So I sync at home but on the road, I can not sync something without wiping out everything already on the iPad or I can not given it to someone else to take on the road and they can not put anything on it unless a real computer where people can have their own accounts.

I know there are apps and hacks to get around some of these and I have used them but my point is that you should not have to hack your PDA to get what is considered to be basic functionality. I am serious considering moving to an Android based tablet with real hardware options such using a thumb drive and using microSD cards to shuffle files around. I’m thinking about some kind of screen protector that might still let me show off images but keep the finger prints to a minimum. The iTunes only management is a real pain in the butt. Since I’m allowed five computers on a given iTunes account, why can I not sync from ANY of the five systems without having to wipe the iPad?

Note: There is a HACK to get around this but we are back to my original point, you should NOT have to HACK your system just to do something as basic as syncing between the five authorized computers.

I have found a few very useful apps for the iPad to help get around some of the issues. Dropbox is one of the biggies. I can move things around from all my computers and get PDFs and images onto the iPad without too much difficulty. Along with Dropbox, is a cool note app called “Elements” where as you write notes, they are put into Dropbox automatically. Since I’m on Facebook, the app called “Social” is perfect for me and lets me manage my Facebook presence very nicely. I use Wyse PocketCloud to remote desktop into a Windows server I have. My display app of choice is called “Foliobook” and does that job very well. For the printing, I use ACTprinter successfully.

So will I give up my iPad?, not yet. But, I see some serious competition on the near horizon that begs a close look. And when I find a tablet that offers real choice, I’ll drop the iPad faster than a hot match. For now, the iPad is the only real game in town but that certainly does not make it perfect by a long stretch.

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Stabilize me

It used to be in the old days, you needed a shutter speed roughly the same as the focal length of your lens. So if you were shooting with a 200mm lens, you need to use about 1/250 to have a chance at a reasonable sharp lens. And telephones were the worst since their length amplifies the wiggles of unsteady hands, age, too much caffine and so on. If you were active, it was worse. You learned to pan very carefully, you learned to cradle the camera right up against your body like a gun. And you still ended up with fuzzy images.

Move up 20 years and now we have IS (Image Stabilization), VR (Vibration reduction) and other names for the same thing. Some work in the lens and some work in the body of the camera. It has become cheap enough that most new point and shoots have a form of it available. I can hand hold the lens at 1/80 and get a sharp image at a wedding without a tripod or monopod. In other words, I can get difficult shots much easier.

VR will not save the world in spite of the marketing propaganda. Sure, you can shoot at 1/10 F5.6 and get a sharp picture but whats the point if the subject is moving? Like kids at a party? So you get a sharp wall and a blur that was the kid running past.

But what does it DO? In simple terms, with the Nikon, there is a package of electronics that move the front element of the lens set actively to get the sharpest image when the shutter is triggered. On many Nikon DLSRs, you can hear a “clunk” as the system engages. I know alot of professional photographers who sneer at VR (I shoot Nikon, so I know this system) as a crutch and that “real” photographers do not use VR. To be honest, I did too for a while and then I thought VR would save the world but finally I understand that VR is just another tool that an help or hinder depending on how I use it.

For example, I spent quite a bit of money on a 70-200mm F.8 lens that is also VR. Why VR on a “fast” piece of glass you ask? Well, the lens can take amazinly sharp images but with the VR engaged, I expand my working range of settings. Instead of having to be still at 1/250 shutter, I can be in a car at 80 MPH and shooting 1/360 at F8 with the lens racked out at 200 mm and still get sharp images inspite of the car and the camera bouncing around on the roadway.

Lets take a look at VR (IS) and see when it’s useful. A typical arrangement for Nikon shooters is to use something like a D80/D90 with a 18-200mm F4.5 VR zoom. So the typical shooting would be something like ISO 1000 to 1600 to keep the noise manageable. So shooting at F4 which is wide open for this lens means in a semi-dark event, that you are shooting something like 1/20 of second shutter. It will be bad enough that the subjects will be moving but at 1/10-1/20 hand holding a zoom lens at something like 100mm on average means alot of blurry pictures. On the other hand, VR will at least give a clear image of what is not moving while you shoot. VR normally is like 3 stops.. so the 1/20 is really shooting at about 1/60 to 1/100 “apparent” shutter speed. It wont stop the action but the background, tables etc will be sharp. Where VR really shines is shooting something like a stage show with enough light that you will be shooting about 1/60 ish and you are shooting long like 100 to 200mm. The shutter is just fast enough to catch people standing still and the VR will give a good focus even at 200mm since the “apparent” shutter is around 1/200.

Here is a family shot taken at 200mm with a 18-200mm zoom shooting wide open at F5.6 and 1/100 shutter. Normally, this would have blurred unless taken with a tripod or supported some how. In this case the camera was held by hand and resting on my forearm. The VR gave a clear image with the low shutter speed relative to the smallish aperture.

Little Angels

VR is not a cure all and it does cost you some in clairity at least in the cheaper lenses like the NIkon 18-55mm VR and 18-200 VR. I always seem to see a bit of softness instead of a really sharp focus with these lenses. This even holds true for the expensive F2.8 VR but on that lens it is very dependent on how bright the image is. Shooting VR in good conditions gives a razor sharp image that you can count nose hairs with. In low light, it’s a bit fuzzy on the edges. But I got the image and it’s usable unlike shooting with it and not getting a usable image. I find that a high pass sharpening works wonders at cleaning up the edges.

Here is another shot where VR really makes a difference. I shot several pictures together by hand at night with the F4 aperture and about 1/30 shutter. Then I stitched them all together. With the VR, all of the images were sharp in spite of hand holding and the low shutter speed.

Christmas Block

VR works in the daytime also. One of my favorite lenses to shoot with for daily stuff is a Nikon lens that costs about 150 USD and looks like it might blow away in a stiff breeze. It’s scary light when you pick it up but it can really take some nice pictures when given a chance.

These images were taken with the 18-55mm VR and both images have sold. It is not always about the equipment.

This image of the Disney California Adventure Zephyr was taken by hand with a shutter of 1/2 second

Zephyr

This image was taken using a shutter of 1/40 and panning with the zoom at 18mm. Look how sharp the people and rocket is. Hard to believe it was a 150 dollar lens huh?

Rocket Ride

So the bottom line is that stabilization is your friend and even in a cheap lens, it can really make a world of difference. You just need to know the limits of VR (IS) and remember that some basic rules apply even with VR. Shutter speed is shutter speed, a slow shutter will give blurred motion to moving objects without or with VR enabled. Stationary objects work best with VR. VR is not perfect but it will certainly help.

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