Week 8: Off camera indoor flash

This week was a win-win! Monday was a holiday and my buddy Steve Wood reminded me that there was a working session with Concrete Couch, a local non-profit, making giant mosaic letters for Soda Springs Park.  I’m also the Concrete Couch webmaster, so I love it when I can get current photographs of the cool projects the Couch has going.  An added bonus was that I could play around with off camera flash. So that’s this weeks project.

The room where we were working had low acoustic tile ceilings and cream colored walls. Most everything I shot used a strobe on a light stand, flagged with a “black foamy thing” so that it primarily bounced off the wall and diffused to provide a softer light on my subjects. I didn’t have to worry much about white balance. If anything, the cream walls gave everything a hint of a warm tone. Here’s a pull-back of one shot to show the diffused texture of the light and the position of the flash. Everything was fired using Pocket Wizards.

The flash was slightly behind the subject at about a 30 degree angle, so some of the spill gave some nice rim lighting for separation.

The problem came when the subjects were closer to the wall when working at a bench that was right up against the wall. It was harder to bounce the light in and give it some direction. In the two frames below, you can see where I first tried bringing the light in from the front, and them from the back. From the front, it was way too flat for my taste and fell off into the background. On the other hand, lighting from the back made the wall and surrounding background go totally nuclear. The backlighting did have the advantage of bringing out texture in the mosaic tiles.

So… what to do??? I wanted to keep the backlighting, I just needed to find a way to narrow the beam of the flash so that it only bounced off of a more compact section of the wall. That turned out to be straightforward by zooming the flash head to its 105mm max, and fitting it with the same homemade snoot I used in the Week 6 blog Up Close and Snooty. The flash stand stayed pretty much in the same position as the nuclear shot, but I pointed it so that the tight beam would hit a little in front of the subject so that it wouldn’t show up in the frame when I shot it. And that’s how I got the shot at the top of this week’s blog. I was very pleased that I could work through this to get something I wanted.

This setup also threw light further down the table and I could actually light more than one person, as seen below, though I do confess to dragging the exposure up +.53 in Lightroom.

Overall, bouncing the light around for the entire shoot really enhanced the texture of the mosaic tiles, even without the snoot. We’ve got lots of great shots to document this phase of the project on the website now!

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Week 07: Dancing with the Stars

On the late Saturday evening of my birthday I was standing on the deck looking out into a beautiful, crisp February night sky. Pikes Peak stood majestically among the bright stars, while below the bare trees did little to hide the streetlights. It was a time to ponder life; a time to ponder nature; but mostly it was a time to ponder just what the heck I was going to do for my photo project this week! I literally had only an hour and a half before midnight, and the week would be over. I had many excuses for why I had not set myself a goal and taken a picture in the past 7 days. Was I really going to miss this deadline? Suck it up Phil. Just do it! So I did. This week’s project was about the night sky and how to expose for it.

Camera data: 1973 seconds; f/11; ISO 200; 24 mm; tungsten white balance
Canon 5D Mark II w/Canon EF 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens,

Of course, a tripod was manditory. I’ve done many night exposures with film cameras both on and off my telescope, but this was my first real attempt using digital. A few years ago the long digital exposure would have generated a lot of “noise” and there would have been many “hot” pixels, or at least I assume there would have been. This image ended up pretty clean. About the only post processing was to adjust the blacks and contrast a bit.

Being so close to my midnight deadline, and knowing I would need to expose for 30 minutes or more, I shot only two frames. The first was at f/16 @ ISO 100 and for a few minutes longer, but was underexposed and had a yellow tint overall. For the second shot, I opened up to f/11, ISO 200  and switched to tungsten while balance. The glow to camera right is the city lights from Manitou. Overall not a great technical shot, but I still learned a lot from it. Next time around I would expose longer to lengthen the star trails. I think an hour or more would stretch them out nicely and the concentric circles would be more obvious. I’d also like to do some landscapes when the moon is out. Seeing more contrast in the landscape would be very interesting.

In the end, I was happy to have held to the deadline of capturing the frame before midnight Saturday. This project is primarily for me, and it’s important to stick to promises, especially those you make to yourself!

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Week 06: Up close and snooty

The tulips on the kitchen table pretty much insisted that I blog about them this week. They were very inviting in the soft diffused light from the snowy day outside. So the  initial exercise for this week became macro. My goal was to compose in a way which took me out of a rut I think sometimes feel I’m in. I often compose with a flat background like  you’d stick cartoon characters in front of. I figured flowers are less about flat planes and more about shapes and layers, so my brain was instantly out of a rut and into creative territory.

With the extension tube, I had to be within mere inches of the tulip to get it into focus. Trying different angles I happened upon the view above, which had the back right petal in focus along with the pistil and stamen (like that? I was once a biology major). This is a look I really like. To my eye, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion. My brain doesn’t really consider them to be in the same plane of focus, but they obviously are. The blurred petal in the front helps create this. How can I leverage this in the future?? Dunno, but you can bet I’ll look for ways! For now, I know it when I see it.

Image data: 1/2 sec f/22 ISO 800 @ 60mm.
Canon 5D Mark-II, EF24-70mm, Canon Extension Tube EF25 II

One handy thing about the extension tube on a zoom lens is that the zoom also becomes a method of focusing.

With a 1/2 second exposure, a tripod was an absolute requirement. In hindsight, I would have gotten a sharper image by locking up the mirror prior to the shot. I did use a cable release to avoid further camera shake.

So, what if I didn’t have this gorgeous diffused light, but I did have my flash and a homemade “snoot” I made out of cereal box cardboard with gaffers tape? Well, then I would have had this:

Image data: 1/125 sec f/22 ISO 400 @ 63mm. Canon 580-EXII flash at full power with homemade snoot.

Since I liked the highlight on the back right petal from the ambient light image, I positioned the flash head on camera left so that it backlight and skimmed across the petal  from about the same direction. With the snoot and powerful flash, gone are the rich warm reflections from the wooden tabletop and the green glow of the surrounding stems, but in comes the translucence of the petals. Depending on the need, both images work. The flash shot also gained a lower ISO for better resolution.

One thing I noted is that a small aperture in macro photography is essential, at least for a shot like this. With wider apertures like f/2.8, the foreground and background elements get mushy. Not only that, but the highlights are mushy as well. That was obvious once I gave it some thought, but seeing it was helpful. For example, in the following image shot at f/2.8, the foreground petal and it’s edge highlight are both very blurred. In the previous images, even through the front petal and highlight are not completely sharp, they are sharp enough to imply that it’s a petal close to the camera.

It only took me 6 weeks, but I’ve finally learned to grab some pullback shots as well.

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Week 05: Soft, portable light

This week I wanted a lesson in realism…

As in “how realistic it is to have a portable lighting setup for those situations where flash is a necessity.” We took a trip to Durango for the annual Snowdown  events. Our good friends were good enough to score some tickets to the Follies — a raucous Vaudevillian evening where the audience is every bit as a much of a spectacle as those on stage. And as an appropriate foil for my realism, their theme for this year was Once Upon A Time, which meant that there were a lot of crazy fairly tale characters running around.  Our friends were having a party before the Follies, and that was the perfect way to try out my portable set up.

Packing it in the car was the first step. Cheetah light stand, white umbrella, flash head, pocket wizards, and camera + 50mm lens. All very portable.

At the party I set the umbrella up off on a side of the room where it wasn’t really in anyone’s way. It was obvious, but not in the way. The Gnome (Kelly) was a willing subject so I tried a variety of settings until my exposure looked pretty good on the histogram and in the display.

Let the learning begin!

So, I learned several things. The first is that I need to do experiments like this so that I have a good starting point for exposure. The second is how much you can overexpose an image and still salvage it in Lightroom! By no means did I start with a good exposure. In fact, here’s the image as it was actually exposed. Impressive, eh? I drug it down almost 2 stops in Lightroom.

Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm lens, Canon 580-EX II flash, Westcott 45″ white umbrella, Pocket Wizards
Camera settings: 1/60 f4.0 ISO 250. Flash @ 1/4 power (manual)

I wanted to have people close to the umbrella so that I would get the softest light. The light was pointed (through the umbrella) slightly behind the subject. This threw some light into the kitchen in the background. I adjusted the ambient exposure via shutter speed to lighten or darken the kitchen. You can see that the light reflected off the surface of the refrigerator and cabinets to camera right in the background.

My takeaways were:
1) Do this more! Learn learn learn!
2) Vary my position. The textures when side lit are amazing!
3) Light in the background is cool, and adds depth
4) I have plenty of flash power in this situation. Shooting on 1/4 or 1/8 power gave me the ability to fire off 4 to 8 quick shots and not miss the moment

Here are a few more shots from the party. You can see a portion of the umbrella in the last shot. I’m trying to be better about doing a full pull back shot. Maybe by week 10!

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Week 04: Being the Historian

My role as a historian is more and more at the front of my mind and influencing what I photograph. It’s also influencing more of what I do (and don’t) offer to my clients, but that’s a topic for another time. This week I wanted to learn more about how my camera would hold up in low light situations where I see exactly what I am shooting and perhaps not be too obtrusive with a flash.

On a trip to Kentucky to visit my mom, aunt, and uncle the perfect moment arose. My uncle brought out some scrap books with photographs that most of us had never seen before. The feeling in the room instantly melted into a creamy nostalgia and excitement for visiting old places and long lost loved ones. I wanted to capture this moment of my mother’s siblings together being themselves.

The ambient light was primarily midday sunlight through french doors 10 feet to camera right. Camera data: 1/80 f4.0 ISO 1600. Canon 5D Mark II, EF 24-105mm @ 65 mm.

Below is a portion of the image at 100%. It’s rare that I can handhold something at 1/80 these days, but the 24-105 is an image stabilization lens. It was the only lens I brought on the trip because of it’s wide usable range and the IS. For my uses ISO 1600 worked fine and I’m comfortable I could have gone much hight.  I was particularly pleased that I nailed the exposure. Other than cropping and a little color balance, the image is untouched. When shooting sports I’ve found that it’s better to go with an ISO that gives you a good exposure rather than underexposing and dragging up noise in post processing. The reflection of one of the french doors can be seen in my aunt’s fingernail.

For additional shots from other angles, I bumped the ISO to 2500 to keep a good exposure for this shot. I was very happy with the results for ISO 2500.1/80 f4.0 ISO 2500 @45mm

For comparison, I put on my flash and “black foamy thing”, and bounced into the corner of the room at far camera right. This was the corner near the french doors, so the light was coming at a similar angle as the natural light. I wanted to match the direction of light, but I was surprised by how well it did match it! (Note to self: if you like the direction the natural light makes the scene look but you’ve got to use flash to get a decent exposure, bounce your flash from the same direction!) With the flash, I was able to gain about three and a half f-stops of light! I wanted a lower ISO to pick up more detail. Comparing now, the ISO 2500 image above and the ISO 640 image below are pretty well matched. I’d be comfortable shooting 2500 in natural/ambient light without fear of the image being too noisy. And that was the purpose of my exercise.1/125 f5.6 ISO 640 @ 67mm. Flash bounced into corner at camera right.

The biggest thing I learned on this was actually learned afterwards (and too late I’m afraid). I wanted to get a good shot of my mother and her siblings, and ended up grabbing a perfectly exposed (and perfectly boring) shot of them lined up on the couch. If they ever need a wanted poster, I’ve got the shot. In the car driving away it struck me that the historic, meaningful, connected shot would have been the three of them cradling a gorgeous photograph we had come across in the album of my other (late) aunt. At least I figured it out. There was a time it never would have even occurred to me. Now I know I’ll find those meaningful shots in the future to do my part to preserve the past.

(Note: I’ve been doing a great job of getting an image each week, but a lousy job of publishing my blog. I’ll get better… I promise!)

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Week 03: The common cold

The common cold

I’ve gotten in the bad habit letting a good part of the week pass by before really tuning in to my image challenge for the week, and I paid the price this week when I felt the first sniffles of a cold Thursday afternoon. Boy did it hit quickly. By 10 pm I was in bed running a mid-grade fever and feeling rather miserable. The next 48 hours were a cycle of naps, nose blows, headaches, reading, medicines, bizarre dreams, and iTunes. I had time to think about an image for the week, but no energy to actually make it happen. The end of the week was fast approaching and I didn’t want to wimp out on the third week. Just not good 2012 karma.

As I eyed the growing still life on my bedside table, it was becoming a richer candidate for the  image project. There’s something almost nostalgic about having a cold. We start as kids and are pampered by doting moms and dads. The special treats come out and there is often school to be missed. Miserable, yes, but special in it’s own right. Granted, the doting is long gone and repaid to our own children, but the familiar medicines and piles of tissues provide a familiar continuity.

So reading up on using strobes (flash heads) to light a scene, I decided to try lighting my bedside still life in some interesting manner. My main focus was to learn how the spectral highlights help define textures. The spectral highlights in a picture are the actual reflections of the light source. Very shiny surfaces, like a metal spoon or a glass bottle, are not only lit by a light source; they will reflect back an image of the actual light source. If the light source has sharp edges that shape will be reflected back; if the light source is diffuse the reflection will be more diffuse. I was looking at how I could best define the three dimensional aspects of the various bedside items using the brightest reflections. In other words, this is not about shading; this is about the brightest spots in the image like the transparency of the iTouch, the vertical shafts of reflection on the yellow pill bottle, and the series of bright reflections on the neck of the big brown bottle in the back that help define their surface shape and qualities. In fact, the big brown bottle gives a clue as to how it was lit.

I realize now I didn’t take a pull back shot of the full setup, but there was a strobe (flash head) on both camera left and camera right. The neck of the brown bottle shows highlights on both sides. The strobe on camera left was wrapped loosely with a sheet of typing paper so that it was diffused and coming down at about a 45 degree angle from the bed. The strobe on camera right was laying on a chair about 6 inches away. I bent a piece of typing paper and stood it on the edge of the table so that it diffused the strobe. Both strobes were set to about 1/16th power.

I took several images this way, ultimately moving the yellow pill bottle to the back because I thought the color cast was distracting. In the end, I picked this one because the light and yellow glow remind me of the nightlight I had as a kid. Childhood fevers were an endurance adventure, a right of passage, something you had to do on your own. Even as a kid I kept a bedside tape recorder or transistor radio I could listen to. Not too much has changed. They just look cooler and can play videos.

And yes I’m definitely looking forward to feeling better so I can go out an play!

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Week 02: Bucket of Love

Ah, you gotta love Manitou Springs! Where else would you find a couple frolicking in a field on an unusually warm January afternoon…. in crash helmets with five gallon buckets trying to catch a flying fruit cake??? Of course it’s the Great Fruitcake Toss, an annual event in Manitou.

For this week’s image I wanted to experiment with a couple of things: using flash with midday sun and trying out a used tele extender. Since a tele extender lengthens my already-long 200 mm lens, and a flash is very much limited to a short distance, these were two orthogonal goals. (Yes, I did actually just use the word “orthogonal”. I used to work with a guy who used it thrice daily, so I actually know what it means.)

I timed my arrival to noon figuring that was about as midday as one could get. The Toss was supposed to last until 2 pm, but it was already winding down around noon. The final event had people out in the middle of the football field with a variety of catching implements: baseball gloves, open backpacks, grocery bags, and bright orange five-gallon utility buckets. A row of catapults and trebuchets lined the east end zone, taking turns firing softball-sized wrapped fruitcakes skyward in the general direction of frenzied catchers circling under the falling barrage of fruitcakes. Ok, actually they were very organized and shot one at a time toward their own teammates, hoping like heck it would get close enough to catch. A catch is a pretty rare event as you might imagine.

I shot a few flash shots of the trebuchet jockeys with their backs to the blazing sun, filling the shadows with my flash. I could tell on my camera monitor that the light was generally flat and unexciting. Midday flash would need to be a project for another week. I slapped on the tele extender and sought out a trebuchet that seemed to have both a stable platform and a stable crew. With the tele extender, the lens became a 300 mm zoom. In hindsight, it would have been better to back way up and include the full trebuchet in the foreground, but things were happening fast and I didn’t want to miss a shot as the event was winding down.

I find that for me, it all comes down to capturing the decisive moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the first photographers I studied and he coined the phrase of the decisive moment, at least in photography. It continues to influence my photography. I chose this image for week 2 of Project 52 because of the moment and elements it captures. The husband and wife team had actually executed some other great catches, but this image has several elements that work well together. I just love the insanity and comedy that come together. Truth be told, it’s not the sharpest image I took in the series, so it’s not even a good evaluation of the tele extender or my ability to focus. Techniques for tracking people in motion will have to be one of my future projects. Wow, week 2 and I’ve already found 10 future topics!

Camera settings: 1/800 sec @ f/4.5 @ 500 ISO.
Canon 5D Mark-II, EF70-200mm f/4 IS USM lens + 1.4x tele extender @ 145mm.

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