Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reverse Engineer the Light

(photo above by Dan Winters)

One of the things I enjoy most about photography is learning different techniques. One of the ways to accomplish this, is to find works by other people you enjoy, and try to duplicate them. I'm not saying try to blatantly copy another person's work and pass it off as your own, but by trying to duplicate works that you appreciate, you can learn new techniques and can save them for when you want to try something different.

Reverse engineering a photo is a very clever way of learning new techniques, especially with lit portraits. Some photographers are very skilled at creating subtle lighting setups to flatter their subjects. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of people like Dan Winters, Gregory Heisler, Joe McNally and the likes.

Lit portraits by these guys can be very hard to decipher but with a little practice and trial and error through your own work, you can become very adept at figuring out various lighting setups which will in turn, give you valuable information for lighting your own portraits.

The portrait above of Tom Hanks was taken by the very talented Dan Winters, a notable and famous portrait photographer. He has taken portraits of many well known actors and figures and is known for his ability to create very sophisticated light on his subjects that doesn't call attention to itself. This portrait was part of a lengthy discussion on the Flickr Strobist group about how it was lit. After I offered my opinion on how i thought it was done, I decided to set about re-creating it to see how accurate my own perception of his lighting technqiue was.

Looking at the portrait above, the first thing I decided to figure out was his background. It is definitely lit separately than the subject and has a nice gradient (fall-off) from bottom to top. To accomplish this, I used an SB-600 with a Stofen diffuser, about 2 feet away from the background and pointed slightly upwards.  I knew by using the diffuser it would give me more of a spread out light and by placing it in close, I knew it would create the gradient I wanted.  This light was at 1/4 power.

Now on to the harder stuff.  Man oh man did this shot give me fits and while I will admit that my finished portrait is not quite like Dan Winters' I feel its pretty close and I really liked the finish result.

So how to trouble shoot the main light(s)... well, in any lit portrait, the first thing I do is look for the shadows and catch lights in the eyes.  These two things can tell you a lot about the lighting used, including the quality of the light (hard or soft) and the direction of the light, two very important components.  So if you look at the shadows on the subject's nose, you can see two distinct shadows, one soft shadow at the bottom of his nose at about 7 o'clock, and another slightly harder shadow coming off his nose at about 9 o'clock.  This would appear to me that two light sources were used, one slightly harder than the other.  Also you will notice that the shadow on the lapels of his jacket are quite hard.  This honestly left me baffled as to how there could be a soft and hard shadow on his nose and a harder shadow on the jacket.

I know that Dan Winters will frequently use ring lights in his portraits to fill shadow areas but I couldn't tell if that was the case in this particular portrait, and furthermore I don't own a ring flash so I had to try to come up with another solution.  Also you will notice a slight highlight on the subject's right ear (camera left).  That could either be from the a ring flash fill or from a reflector.

On to my lighting solution... I decided to use a Lumiquest SBIII with a Nikon SB-800 in close and up high at 45 degrees almost immediately to my left (camera right) and angled down.  I wanted this to duplicate the 7 o'clock shadow on the subject's nose and on the lapels of his jacket.  Since this was a fill light and not my key I dialed the power down to 1/32 and took a test shot.  This was giving me just enough light to get the result I was looking for.

Now for that glorious spot of light on the subject's face.  I'm still not sure how Dan Winters did this, but I decided a grid or a snoot would have to be my solution.  I took another SB-800 and opted for the snoot, placed it camera right and pointed it towards where my face was going to be.  Since this was a self portrait and me not shooting someone else, I had to take many test shots before I got the light right where I wanted it.  After looking at my results, I decided this light was simply too hard on my face, so the next question was, how to soften it?  I thought of putting tissue paper over the end of the snoot, but then I had (what I like to think of as) a stroke of genius!  Why not put a white shoot thru umbrella in front of it?  I had never tried this before but thought it would give me the look I was after, a spot of light with soft edges but still yet defined.  This light was at 1/8 power.

Bingo!  That was the ticket, it took a few shots to get everything lined up but I also noticed that by using the umbrella with the snoot, I was actually getting a little more frontal fill which brightened the shot up just a teeny bit ...which was nice.  I tried using the zoom feature on the speedlight and choking it up on the umbrella, but the spot wasn't very defined with either attempt and went back to the snoot and the umbrella.  This gave me the look I was after.

For that little bit of light on the subject's right ear (camera left) I used a silver reflector in very close.  It picked up the light from my umbrella/snoot combo and a little from my fill light (both camera right).

Below is my version of the portrait above and while I will be the first to admit, it is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing to me as Mr. Winters' is, I still liked the result and learned a new lighting trick to boot!

Self Portrait No. 42 a-la Dan Winters

In Photoshop, I adjusted the color tones a bit to more closely match those of the original portrait.  However I discovered that since I'm so pale (darn Irish/English roots) I preferred a little more reddish hue to the cheeks so I left that and just adjusted the color tones of the background.  A quick black border on the print and that was it.

This was an incredibly frustrating but rewarding experiment and if you're itching to learn new techniques then I suggest you start collecting images of inspiration or that you enjoy and start trying to replicate them.  Its one thing to sit and try to reverse engineer the light, but when you actually try to physically do it, you will be amazed at how your perception can change when you see things first hand.  You will learn a lot in the process and it can be a very rewarding experience.

Thanks to Mr. Winters for the inspiration and the Flickr Strobist group for bring the subject up.

Hope you try this and Happy Holidays to everyone!


For another great article on reverse engineering light, check out THIS ARTICLE by David Hobby of the Strobist blog.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What's Happening in December?

Lots of stuff happening this month, so rather than a normal post, I thought I'd share a few cool links I've stumbled across over the last month or so.

The first and perhaps my favorite, World Leaders Photographed by Platon ...this is too cool, famous photographer Platon holed up at the UN and coaxed as many world leaders to sit for a portrait as he could.  With each one of these shots, there is an audio commentary by Platon about that leader.  Very cool!

Second, need a new Nikon shirt?  Scott Kelby linked to these on his blog, and all of the proceeds go to a really good cause, check it out!

Next, David Hobby of the Strobist blog has this very cool, on going post in which he interviews some of the past Old Masters on their lighting techniques.  Very fun and informative!  His latest is with Vermeer.

Another awesome post by Scott Kelby, how to become known as a better photographer.  This is a must read!

Looking for a last minute Christmas present for a photographer friend?  Check out these awesome deals on lightstands at Photographer's Warehouse!  ...I've already bought a few.

Last but not least, I've been telling a lot of people about this site, its where I buy a lot of my photography gear.  If you live in the midwest/east, they are very close, ship quickly and the customer service rocks!  Check out Midwest Photo Exchange!

That's all I've got for now, but I should be squeaking another post in before Christmas! I'm hoping if I post more, Santa will be extra special good to me.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

White Seamless Paper Tutorial

Another year of experience and wisdom shined on me this week...

No, actually I had a birthday and my wonderful girlfriend bought me two new seamless paper backgrounds.  I have been wanting these for so long, but have just been to cheap to buy them for myself.  As a photographer though, these are totally invaluable when it comes to shooting portraits and good quality product shots.

For the longest time I have wanted to be able to produce full length portraits on a white high key background but to get these, you really need a roll of seamless paper (and space).  I am now the proud owner of a roll of Savage Super White and Black paper backgrounds.  Each one is roughly 36 feet long, which is more than long enough to give me a full sweep to photograph full length portraits on.  The extra length will come in handy; when they get dirty I can simply tear off the worn piece and pull down fresh, clean paper.

I recently did a portrait session with my girlfriend's daughter on the white seamless and had an absolute blast!  The thing I was most proud about was setting up all of my lights and having the power settings accurate on the first shot.  I'm pretty familiar with my trusty Nikon Speed Lights at this point but having never done this before, it was quite fulfilling to nail the lighting on the first go ...that never happens!

Since this technique seems to be somewhat elusive for a lot of folks, I thought I'd share my technique on this shoot.

To setup the roll of paper, I used a cheap background kit which consists of two stands and a cross bar that is adjustable from roughly 6 feet to 9 feet.  I slid the roll of paper on the cross bar and used A Clamps (A Clamps are a very useful tool in the photographer's gear bag ...and they're cheap!) from Home Depot to secure the roll on the bar.  Then I pulled down the length of paper I thought I would need and used gaffer's tape to secure the ends to the ground.  The reason I used gaffer's tape rather than another version is that it sticks well, but doesn't leave a residue and won't pull the finish off your floor or the paper.

After setting up the paper, I started with the background lights.  Generally when going for a high key (or blown white) background I've found that its best to have these lights about 2 stops stronger than your key light.  So I took 2 Nikon SB-600's (one on either side of the background) and placed them about 3 feet away from the background.  I pointed each one just a little past center to get an even wash of light.  I adjusted the flashes' power setting to about 1/4, then I added Honl gobo's to each one so that the light wouldn't spill forward on my subject.

For the key light, I used my DIY Beauty Dish with an SB-800 on a stand boomed above the model and on camera axis.  The reason I used the Beauty Dish was that I wanted a "punchy" light that was somewhat soft but not super soft.  My model has exceptionally good skin so I knew I could get away with this kind of light.  Another reason I used the Beauty Dish was it takes up less space than a large softbox or open umbrella.  My studio is my downstairs living room so I'm somewhat limited on space.  The SB-800 was set at 1/8 power.  I knew I wanted a fast recycle time with my lights for this kind of shoot so I chose 1/8 power because it will let me fire my SB-800 pretty much as fast as I want.  To make sure I was getting enough light on my model, I just opened up the aperture to f/5.6.  With stronger lights you can get away with f/8 or f/11 and I probably could have gotten f/8 with my speedlights, but after taking a test shot, I decided f/5.6 was giving me enough depth of field on subject.  Since I was shooting in a controlled environment and the only light contributing to my shot was the light I was providing, I set my shutter speed to my D300's fastest native flash sync speed which is 1/250 sec.  This ensured that no ambient light contributed to my shot.

I wanted to produce a "beauty light" type of lighting so I chose a clamshell method which is also known as the 'over-and-under' method, meaning that my key light was up above the model on camera axis, then I placed a fill light below my camera on camera axis.  For this fill light, I used another SB-800 in a Lumiquest SBIII.  The Lumiquest SBIII is a small softbox for speed lights that kind of emulates the light of my beauty dish when used in close.  Its not too soft, but its not a hard light either.  I set the power on this light to one stop below my key light at 1/16 power.  The reason I went with a lower power is I wanted to reduce the shadow under the model's chin but not eliminate it.  This is actually pretty subjective so you can really dial the power of this light in, take a test shot and decide where you want it ratio wise.  You could also use a reflector as opposed to another light, but since I knew I would be doing full length body shots, I didn't think the reflector would throw back up enough light.

Normally I shoot with Nikon CLS (Creative Light System) using my camera's built-in flash triggering system, but since I was using four lights, I thought it would just be easier to use my Cyber Sync Flash Triggers to trigger my flashes.  The only catch with this is, you have to dial the power settings in manually at each flash.  Which by now, I've become pretty accustomed to this so its no big deal.  If I thought I would be changing the power settings a lot, I would have used CLS because its a pain to run around to each light, but since this was a studio type session, I just got my lights dialed in where I wanted them and banged away.

I know from this lengthy post it seems like it took a long time to do all of this, but honestly I had the seamless paper background and all of my lights setup in about 30 mins.

With everything setup I was ready for my model.  She stepped in and I took a few shots to check to see if the positioning of my lights was how I wanted them.  Everything was good to go, so I started motoring off the shots.

Another good thing about a lighting setup like this is that your model can actually move around quite a bit and you will still get good, evenly exposed shots.  Even still, I usually will point out a spot on the ground that I want my model to stand on just to be safe.

This paper background is a 53" wide roll.  Its just about perfect for single person shots, but I still had to clean up the sides in Photoshop on the full length shots.  I would prefer a wider roll, but I just don't have the space in my living room studio to setup a 9 foot roll.  No worries, though.  I didn't have to do very much in post to get these shots to look good, so I didn't mind the minimal effort of cleaning up the sides.

In this last photo, you can see my setup (I zoomed back on this a bit to show the lighting setup) and my absolutely gorgeous living room. 

I can't tell you how much fun this shoot was for me, and I plan on doing a lot more in the future.  I'll have to experiment with the black roll next.  FWIW, these rolls of paper are much cheaper than you think and you get a cheap background kit for around $150 US.  So if these types of shots interest you and you have the space, run out and pick you up a roll or two, or three, or four, or five.

For more info on shooting on white seamless backgrounds, check out this awesome tutorial by Zack Arias


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm on Safari to Stay!

Man, it has been a really long time since I've had something worthwhile to write about on the blog! My girlfriend and I recently bought our first house together and it has been one long, crazy ride... but that is another story.

Today I read an article by one of my favorite photographers, Joe McNally, that really left an impression on me.

His latest blog post was about a reply to a letter he wrote to a young college student who was unsure about what he wanted to do in his life. Now I'm not a 19 year old student wondering what I'm going to do with my life (I'm 37 and wondering... kidding!) but what I took away from his post is a statement he made toward the end...

and I quote, "...there is so much still to do, so much ground to cover, and my best work is still out there, somewhere. I am still on safari here, the great picture hunt, as someone once called it."

After I thought about this, it really became clear to me that I couldn't have said how I feel about my own work as a photographer any better than this.

For me photography is a drug that has me addicted with no hope of rehab. I constantly get frustrated with my own results when I see so many other talented photographers consistently producing awesome work. But then, I think, this is what draws me to improve my own skill, to perfect my craft, to continue learning and experimenting in every way I can. Don't get me wrong, I have one or two photos I've taken over time that I really like and think they are decent works, but I still have this yearning for something better, to take a photo that gives me that euphoric feeling of bliss and the moment of A-HA, THAT'S THE ONE!

With every frame I take, I usually grumble about the color, or the composition, or the lighting, or the fact that my subject had one eye closed, etc. etc. but, by analyzing my own work so stringently, hopefully, I will learn from it, and remember it the next time my shutter finger gets itchy.

If a master photographer like McNally says he's still searching for that one, mind blowing, earth shattering image (and he has thousands of these already imho) then where does that leave me??? I'm not comparing myself to him or any other photographer, and I'm not suggesting you do either, but that drive to continually capture that one true moment that makes your knees weak and your eyes gleam, is what will push us all to become better at what we do.

I just can't forget this line "I am still on safari here, the great picture hunt, as someone once called it." cool is that?

On a side note, I heard another photography related quote that I thought I'd share:

"Getting in to photography is like getting in to prostitution. First, you do it for fun, then you do it for friends, then you do it for money." ...or something very similar - Dean Collins


Tuesday, October 13, 2009


So I haven't been doing much in the way of photography lately since Jenn and I are getting ready to move in to our first house (after months of planning)! However, that hasn't prevented me from keeping up with my favorite photography blogs.

I love the amount of photography related information available on the net today that only a few years ago was virtually unheard of. Thanks to some really talented photographers sharing their wisdom and experience, its almost impossible not to learn whatever technique your mind is craving.

Over the last week or so, I came across three really great articles that made me sit back and reflect on my own skills and abilities. All three are different in their vision but equally stimulating.

In no particular order:

Consider Your Palette

This first article by my lighting mentor, David Hobby of the Strobist blog, deals with the colors you choose to show in your own work. He makes some really interesting points in this, and while its not entirely Strobist related, its most definitely photography related and will encourage you to view your own work from a new perspective, at least it did me.

This next article, Lessons I Didn't Learn in Photo School, is by Syl Arena from the PixSylated blog, an amazing photographer and educator. He explores five insightful points that may seem simple, but after a little thought, could change your outlook on your next shoot.

Last but not least are some very profound words of wisdom from one of the greats in modern photography, Jay Maisel! Jay is a world renowned photographer and is known for mastering composition through natural light. A few months ago he was the guest blogger on Scott Kelby's blog, and delivered a simple but effective message.

Check out that article HERE.

I frequently post links to other people's works that I enjoy reading, but in this case, I really do hope you take the time to read these, more importantly, get something from them!


Monday, October 5, 2009

"I'll Light Ya For It"

This is just too good not to share... Joe McNally and Scott Kelby doing a spoof of the old Michael Jordan / Larry Bird McDonalds commercial...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Photography on the 'Net: the Unsolicited Critique

While I consider myself to be a tolerant and somewhat thick-skinned type personality, I've started to notice a growing trend in the online photography community that has forced me to create this self-fulfilling rant.

Over the years, I have become quite the stalker of photography related information on the internet. I myself have my own photography website, a Flickr account, a blog (duh), a Facebook account and on and on and on and on... I also read as many as 10 different photography blogs a week to stay informed on the latest technologies but also to learn from some really talented photographers out there. With the advent of the internet it has become so easy to display your work, to learn and to share your knowledge with others. This is where I've become a little disgruntled with the community.

First, let me make this statement. I absolutely have no problems with the critiquing of one's work. It helps us to grow as professionals and to perfect our craft. However what does irk me is when someone critiques another person's work when it wasn't asked for. I do realize that when you post a photo on the internet it can become a host to a menagerie of abuses. They can be stolen, used without your permission or any compensation and anyone can comment anything they want about it (generally speaking). In my humble opinion though, I believe this boils down to manners ...or the lack thereof.

When someone posts a photo of theirs on a public forum such as Flickr, Photobucket or Facebook, usually its because: they are somewhat proud of it, they want to share it with their friends/family, they are documenting a moment in time, they want to provide an educational resource or they simply want to show their work. Most of these public places where you can post your images, also have comments sections so that you can tell the creator what you think of the work.

Now while I agree that if you are going to post your work in these "public forums" you should be willing to accept the fact that some (or dreadfully) all of the comments you receive may not be positive. Personally, I have never minded a negative critique, but I don't think its appropriate to do so, unless a request for an honest critique has been made by the poster.

I think that most of the time, if someone has posted a photo on the internet, its because they thought it was reasonably good and liked it for some reason or another. Its been my practice that if I like a photo that someone has posted for whatever reason (and especially if they're a friend or someone who is just starting out in photography), I try to say at least something positive about that photo. I think it makes people feel good about themselves and builds a little confidence, even if its a comment as simple as "Awesome!" I try to be more constructive in my comments too if I can. If I don't like the photo, then I simply don't look at it, or don't leave a comment, unless that person is requesting a critique of their work. Even then, I try to find something I like about the photo, before stating what I think could be better about the photo.

I am constantly amazed at the rudeness of people who post negative critiques about other people's work, especially when it was not asked for. As hokey as this sounds, my momma always told me, if you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all. Personally, I think this is a philosophy to live by. It seems that good manners these days are not something that is practiced and its a shame. Why be negative to people and lower their self-esteem? There are ways to communicate with people without being demeaning. Almost all of the "public forums" that are out there, have a method to direct message someone without making it public. If you feel you need to critique someone's work, than for pete's sake, try that method first. Who knows, you might even make a new friend!

Photography to me, is an art. Just like any other medium of art, there are going to be works you like, and works you don't. Some people like different styles, techniques, subject matters and just do it to have fun. To say that you don't like a certain style or technique is quite fine (the world would be boring if we all liked the same things) but to negatively comment on someone's work, or about someone's work just because you don't personally like that style is in poor taste imho.

If you're a person who finds the need to critique others, then there are groups specifically for that. If someone is asking for a critique in a public forum, then do your best to be honest, but try to be polite and positive at the same time and keep in mind that while you may have skin as thick as leather, other people may not. With all the negativity in this world, why add to it? We can all get along and learn from each other without stepping on each others toes.

Don Giannatti of Lighting Essentials fame (known as Wizwow on Flickr), a photographer who's work and skill I really admire, summed my thoughts up best in a Flickr discussion group recently so I thought I'd share his insight:

"...I rarely critique work without having discussed the image with the photographer first. And I never offer unsolicited critique. I really wouldn't know where to start.

Without knowing the purpose of the photograph, the intentions of the photographer, the genre or style of his/her work, and whether they thought the image successful, what would I say?

Too dark? For
Need more space to the top? For who... me?

Critique without knowing the intentions, style and perspective of the viewer is not critique, it is initializing a set of personal parameters that one brings totally externally to the image.

And one can make images that mean nothing to one person and the world to another. What makes a good photograph is what one brings to the image as viewing it. Photography runs the gamut of styles from the nearly focused, deeply moody, dark and underexposed imagery of Matt Mahurin to the digital fantasy of Tim Tadder to the beautifully stark realism of Dan Winters.

Would we judge Mahurin's work with the same set of critiques as we would Winters? Surely not.

There is a famous Flickr page that can be found archived somewhere (I am getting to the airport now) that shows the absolutely incredible critique of Henri Cartier Bresson's "The Bicyclist". The image, acclaimed the world over and I believe is the highest paid image at Sotheby's, gets crucified by Flickrites for being in black and white and slightly out of focus and 'why vertical... and on and on.

So while I will occasionally note that I really like some image, I do not nor will I ever, offer negative comments. I don't know what good it does, and without a discussion back and forth it is simply "I woulda done it this way..." and of course that isn't critique. I would rather keep my mouth shut and be thought a boor."

I couldn't agree with him more! Ok, that's my rant for the year, and the next post will be something worth reading ...not just me venting. =)

Keep in mind, this is just my opinion, and its ok if yours differ ...just realize that I am right and you are wrong. ;)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cool stuff...

I just love What the Duck!

Cool stuff from surfing the net over the last two weeks...

1. Google Analytics for Photographers download by Photoshelter on how to use one of the internet's most powerful tools

2. Photography Now ...a cool place to view a lot of great photographer's works, including some of the masters

3. this one was a very interesting read! Copyright Myths De-Bunked

4. Ever wanted to learn how to photograph bats? well then, check this out!

5. My favorite word RESOURCES! 50 Free Resources to Improve your Photography Skills

6. For anyone who would like to have a free resource to make your own lighting diagrams of your photography sessions, check out this link ...the best I've seen to date

7. All the smart guys are at MIT ...this is too cool!

that's it for now!

P.S. ...McNally finds the first red tree in the States (osmotically through Moose Peterson)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Moves You!

Ride On!

Have fun with your projects even if they don't turn out completely like you wanted. That's what I figured out while trying to complete the Strobist Boot Camp II, Assignment 4.

The assignment this time around was What Moves You literally. The subject matter was transportation and could be any form. Since I didn't have access to a speeder bike (my first choice), I found a friend with a really nice bike who volunteered to model for me.

I thought about the shot for several days in advance and had it planned down to the angle I wanted to shoot it from, how I wanted to light it, the background and the contrast of color.

So my friend met me and my significant other (my full time VAL and artistic consultant) at a nice open parking lot. When I first arrived, I misjudged where the sun would be setting and right off had to reposition how I wanted to shoot. No biggie. Then I set up my lights and had my buddy make slow circles around me on his bike as I tried panning shots of him as he drove thru my lighting setup.

The color was pretty drab outside so I switched my camera to Tungsten white balance which gave the background a nice blue hue. Then, I underexposed the ambient ever so slightly to give me a richer color. For my key light, I added a full cut of CTO to bring the light back to a normal looking white, then added another 1/2 cut to add just a slight bit of warmth. For my fill light, I decided to leave it un-gelled for a little contrast and had this light 1 stop lower than my key light.
my key light accidentally didn't go off in this shot, but I thought it was pretty cool!

Immediately I figured out the cross lighting pattern I originally setup was garbage. At least it wasn't having the effect I thought it would, so rather than torment myself over it, I analyzed the shots I had so far and felt a different light placement would look better so I just moved my fill light to camera left. My key light was camera right and popped another test shot. This looked much better!

I was dragging my shutter to create a little motion blur, and to get the angle I wanted, I was lying on the ground. This made it rather hard for me to determine when was the right time to pop the shutter since I couldn't see when my subject was in the target zone of my lighting. So Jenn, my VAL and best gal, stood behind me to let me know when the bike was in my target zone.

Ok, now I'm getting some shots. I was a little frustrated in using continuous focus on my D300 because it seemed I never got the sharp point I was looking for be honest, this technique has eluded me for quite some time. I thought this would be the best way to focus on a moving subject. Maybe it is... but it wasn't for me. I switched to single point focusing and actually had no problems keeping my subject in focus.

So after all of the frustration and changes I had to make to what I thought was a very well thought out plan, I still ended up with some shots I liked, tried a few different things and my VAL even got to go for a ride.

Long story short, don't be disgruntled if what you had planned turns to mush. Just go with the flow and keep shooting, something good is bound to happen. This was a learning experience for me and a fun project, even if I didn't get the photos that I had etched in my mind before the shoot.

On a side note, if anyone has any pointers on using continuous focus on the D300, please give a shout out in the comments ...I needs me an ed-u-muh-cation!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Gear Shot!

Gear shot

Someone recently noticed the ludicrous amount of spices I have and asked me why I have so many. My reply, in short, was "can you ever really have too many?" That's pretty much the way I feel about my collection of photography equipment as well.

Most of the stuff I have may seem like overkill, but honestly, I use just about every piece of equipment I have on a regular basis. That being said, I don't always use everything I have all at once, but if the need arises, I'm prepared for the situation. Having so many duplicates of things may seem like overkill to some, but actually, having exact duplicates of things I use on a regular basis just acts as an insurance policy. If a particular piece of hardware breaks, if batteries die, if a stand gets driven over by a TARC bus and so on and so forth, I can simply grab a replacement and keep shooting.

With flashes in particular, its important to have at least two of the exact same type. If you're shooting on location, and for whatever reason one stops working, its nice (not to mention efficient) to be able to grab another one and keep shooting. Ask any wedding photographer, location photographer or even a studio photographer and I can bet you most of them have backups of everything they regularly use.

I digress.

I took the above shot for a project in my girlfriend's Flickr group called the Artist's Eyes. The project was to take a photo of something that defines who you are. Since I'm sorta notoriously known for hefting around a truck load of speed lights and gear whenever I go out and shoot, I thought this shot seemed appropriate.

However, I can't take credit for the idea as it is actually my attempt at duplicating a shot I saw in Joe McNally's latest book, The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes. I don't have nearly the amount of cool techy stuff that he does, nor the skill to represent it so stylishly as he did, but I liked it and wanted to try it out for my self.

While the shot might look difficult, it actually couldn't be simpler. I dialed in an aperture that I thought would give me the best depth of field for the shot. Then I adjusted my shutter speed to get an even exposure according to my D300's built in sensor, then dropped that shutter speed a few stops below that to under expose it just a bit.

I set my on camera pop-up flash to commander mode and "--" which means it won't contribute any light to the shot, it will just trigger the other flashes. Then I set all of the flashes (a mix of SB-800s and SB-600s) to TTL in camera on group A. I also made sure to position the sensor on each flash so that it would see the signal from my pop up flash. I then arranged the flashes in a manner that would light the entire area fairly evenly and took a test shot.

BING! All of the flashes fired and gave a pretty good even dispersal of light but I thought I could use just a little more fill light, so I placed another SB-600 out of frame camera left, and pointed it towards the ceiling. I set this flash to manual, at 1/8 power and group B. By using a different group than the lights in the shot, I could control the different output of my lights in the shot, and my fill light from my camera. Then I took another test shot...

Almost there! It still looks just a tad bit dark for my taste, so rather than adjust any of the flashes in the shot, I dialed +0.7 compensation on the camera which is a global setting affecting the flash and the camera exposure. This made the scene just a little brighter with just an adjustment in camera.

The final specs: f/11 at 1/5 sec ISO 400. I also used a tripod on this, but with all of the flashes, I could have just as easily hand held it.

This seems like a much lengthier process in writing than it really is. Actually taking the shot only took about 5 minutes. Organizing everything for the shot took a little more time than that. =)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

War Shooter and McNally

I stumbled across two great articles today and wanted to share...

The first one is by award winning Teru Kuwayama on how to be shooting in war zones and not get yourself shot. I have no desire whatsoever to do this kind of photography, but I highly respect those that put their own lives on the line to bring the world news and stories.

Number two, for those of you who don't have Joe McNally's latest book The Hot Shoe Diaries, Digital Photo Pro recently did a Q&A style interview with him where he posts a few shots and takes excerpts from his book to describe how he took them. Good, good reading here ...if you haven't picked up his book yet and you get into off camera lighting, then you are really missing out! Do yourself a favor and GET IT!

Monday, August 24, 2009


I have been slacking so badly on the blog lately! Jenn (my girlfriend) and I are in the process of buying a new home and I can say its been about as fun as bamboo splinters driven deeply under the finger nails.

I will officially be moved out of little house on the dairy farm by the end of this week. My roommate and I have shared this house for about 16 years and oh, what a long, strange trip its been! However, I'm ready to move on and start a new era of my life.

That being said, I haven't done any cool photography projects lately, so I thought I would post about a few things I have found around the webber-net over the last month or so.

Hopefully, we will be closing on our new place some time mid-September. After getting settled in, I'm hoping to get a few more informative projects up on the blog. Thanks to those who have been checking in for new posts, even though the well has been dry for a while!

In no particular order...

1. Photographer John Keatley has caught my eye ever since David Hobby of the Strobist blog posted an article about him. He has his own blog, and a website. Check them out, he produces some really cool stuff!

2. Joe McNally is starting a Q&A thing where once a week he will try to answer reader's photography related questions. Joe is a wealth of knowledge and one of my favorite photographers so it should be a pretty informative project. You can get the whole scoop HERE.

3. Are you tired of teenagers (and ignorant adults) making that stupid "duck face" expression and holding up the piece sign like they're some kind of derranged rapper? Well, this guy is too. Check out Anti Duck Face sure to forward this to anyone you know who wears this out!

4. FULL REVIEW of the new Radio Poppers on the Strobist blog!

5. Poor, poor Annie ...I don't care what anyone says, she's an extraordinary photographer and I love her work!

6. Zack Arias shows how to make a really kick-a$$ group shot using only one speedlight, some ingenuity and tupperware

7. I have recently joined Kelby Training, an online training resource for photographers created by Scott Kelby of the Photoshop Insider blog and I have to say, there are TONS of informative tutorials on there covering everything from lighting, to Photoshop, to weddings to... well everything photography related. You can sign up for a free month to check it out and I HIGHLY recommend it!

8. Oh yeah, I'm still shooting too ...for fun and for profit. =)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Peanut Butter & Chocolate

Peanut Butter & Chocolate

You know you wanna take a bite...

So the second assignment for the Strobist Boot Camp II has been handed out and this time it was food (lit with off camera flash of course). The goal was to produce a shot taken of food (or drink) that looked professional and could appear as an advertisement.

It was suggested that you should/could approach your favorite restaurant or chef and volunteer to take photos of their prepared dishes. That way, you have subject matter and get to help someone out too. However, due to the time constraints, and me being busy at my job and preparing to move to a new house, I decided to find something around the house I could shoot.

The first thing I considered was to think of something that everybody likes, that nobody can resist and something easy to setup and light.

BINGO ....who doesn't like chocolate AND PEANUT BUTTER???

So I went to the store and picked up a few Hershey bars (I grabbed two just in case I destroyed one somehow) and picked up an extra jar of Jif Creamy Peanut Butter just can't have enough of this stuff around! Then I set about my lighting.

I decided to use a DIY macro box to light the Hershey Bar and PB since this would give me easy control of my light and not spill all over the place. The macro box is simply an empty copy paper box I swiped borrowed from work, cut holes out of the front and back and one out of the top. Over the top hole I placed two pieces of white copy paper which diffused the light.

My key light was a Nikon SB-800 camera left with a white paper snoot (again to prevent spill) aimed at the top of the box. This light was set to TTL and worked like a charm every single time. Normally I set my flash settings manually, but I thought this time around I would let my camera and flash do the math stuff.

For the background, I setup my Botero collapsible background with the darker side showing (this is just like the one David Hobby uses in the Strobist DVDs) and lit that with another snooted SB-800 camera right with a full CTO gel. I wanted sort of a brownish hue to go with the subject and this combination worked perfectly. This flash was also set to TTL. The reason I used the snoot is because I wanted more of a spot of light behind my subject to draw the eye in more. I had to position this several times before I got one that looked the way I wanted. Both flashes were triggered using the pop-up flash in commander mode on my D300.

The last thing I had to do was get my subject matter situated. I wanted the candy bar standing up and slightly angled with a big glob of peanut butter on it, so I used an A Clamp to hold the candy bar upright. This worked like a charm and acted sorta like a little tripod. I will definitely keep this mind for other small projects.

I took a few test shots, now that I had my lighting and subject matter set, and just positioned the candy bar until I had the light hitting it the way I wanted. Specifically I wanted just a few highlights on the edges of the candy bar and peanut butter and nice shadows so that you could see the texture.

I set my ISO to 200, my shutter speed to my fastest flash sync speed - 1/250 of a second and my aperture to f/5.6. I wanted a reasonable depth of field but wanted the background to be nice and soft and the focus to fall off as it reached the candy bar wrapper.

This was a fun and pretty quick setup. I think I spent about 45 mins setting everything up, taking the shots and then tearing back down. The other nice thing was this was done with small, portable lighting and could have been done anywhere.

I don't know if my shot will win the contest, but I sure had fun doing it, and learned a few things in the process.

For more info on Assignment #2 of the Strobist Boot Camp II, click HERE

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Strobist Boot Camp II

Strobist Boot Camp II - First Assignment

David Hobby of the Strobist blog has fired up the Strobist Boot Camp II. Since I was a late discoverer of the Strobist blog and didn't get to participate in the first Boot Camp, I was chomping at the bit to participate in this one.

For the first assignment you were required to shoot a headshot (using off camera lighting of course) of someone, then have them take a headshot of you. Ideally, the headshot you take would help someone else out and also give you a chance to hone your off camera lighting skills.

I've been Strobist nutz over the last few years learning how to maneuver my Nikon speedlights and now I find myself looking for shots that would require a little off camera lighting love. When I first started shooting, many moons ago, I hated on camera flash and would get the fastest lens I could so I could get enough light to do the shots I wanted. Now that I've got a pretty good handle on off camera lighting, I've learned that I don't necessarily need the latest and greatest, fastest lenses to get good shots ...although they certainly don't hurt.

I digress..

For this assignment, I asked a friend of mine and his wife to pose for me as they were needing new headshots for their business. This was a double bonus for me as it gave me subjects for the assignment and I got to work with friends if the photos turned out like poo, they'd still like me. =)

All of these shots were taken with a three Nikon speedlights and a Botero #23 Collapsible background. The key light was an SB-800 camera left in a 36" shoot thru umbrella in close. For the hair light I used an SB-600 in a Lumiquest SBIII about a stop or two lower than the key and for the background, I used another SB-800 at the same power as the hair light and sometimes used a blue gel.

In this shot my friend took of me, you can sorta see the setup. This setup works great in close quarters and in my opinion gives you just as nice of light as if you were using big monoblocs. Plus, this setup tears down in minutes and you can carry it over your shoulder.

I'm a fairly creative guy, but I like the Strobist assignments because they usually give you a specific set of parameters to follow which for me is a bit more of a challenge. I'm definitely looking forward to the next one.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


As many of you know, I am a resource hound! The more information I can get my hands on, the better, especially when it comes to photography related information.

Since I haven't posted some new links for a while, the vault has been piling up so I thought I would fire off some of the most interesting things I have ran across lately.

First and most importantly:

1. Strobist Boot Camp II is kicking off on the Strobist blog. David Hobby of the Strobist blog did this a while back and it was a fun exercise. He basically gives out four lighting assignments over the course of the summer, you do your homework, complete the assignments, post to Flickr ..and this time, you can win prizes!!!

That is cool. Just PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE read the entire post and the assignments closely as everything you will need to know is laid out in those posts. There are a lot of people posting questions in the Flickr forums that could have gotten the answer by reading the post.

2. One of my favorite photographers, Joe McNally, has updated his website/blog and it is definitely worth the look!

3. For Nikon shooters, if you're not watching D Town TV, then you are missing out! Its a weekly video show by Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski that covers EVERYTHING Nikon. The clips usually run around 10-15 mins and are chocked full of useful information from lighting to lens choices.

4. Discovered a new photographer who's work I really dig, Greg Sims, check him out!

5. Dustin Diaz is a professional photographer who is not only doing a Project 365, but he is doing it the Strobist way, by lighting every one of his shots for the Project. So you're not just seeing namby-pamby-couldn't-think-of-anything-else-better-to-shoot style shots. He's cranking out some seriously cool stuff. You can also get him on Flickr.

That's all I have for now, more to come...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

David Ziser's Digital WakeUp Call 2009

Jenn and I went to see David Ziser's Digital WakeUp Call last night in Louisville, Kentucky and I have to say, this was the single most informative photography seminar I have been too yet, and I've been to a few!

In four hours (maybe just a tad over) he packed in information on shooting; composition, lighting tips, marketing, business management, software and workflows. He also gave out a ton of prizes! ...of course of which I won nothing. =) I'm a lucky guy, its all bad luck.

David is a prolific blogger and an excellent teacher and has been one for many, many years. He makes you feel at home, cracks a few jokes and shares information with you that years ago, you would have to threaten a pro photographer to part with this kind of information.

If you're a wedding photographer, a portrait photographer or ANY kind of photographer, do yourself a favor and try to attend this tour. Its definitely worth the money and if you are a more financially successful photographer than I am, you can afford to attend one of his Digital Master Classes. I haven't been to one of these, but I suspect its even more informative and inspirational than his Digital WakeUp Call tour.

Also, David was gracious enough to pose for a few portraits with Jenn and myself and had time to answer one-on-one questions with us. What a very cool guy!

David A. Ziser
Digital Pro Talk
Digital WakeUp Call 2009

Thursday, June 4, 2009


f/13 at 1/15 sec ISO 200

Sometimes you have an upcoming shoot already planned out in your head. You know what your model will be wearing, how she looks and what light would look best on her. You've already scouted your location, checked to see where the best light will be at what time of day, and have found a few perfect spots for your session.

BUT, what if something unexpected happens?

That was the case with my last shoot, with fellow photographer Nina. We knew where we wanted to shoot, and I had already come up with a few cool lighting setups that would totally rock.

We picked this abandoned train station that had every square inch of it covered in graffiti. It had windows on both sides of the main building, tracks on either side running East/West and many cool rooms full of urban decay.

So we get there and I immediately start setting up a few lights. I always do this on a shoot because I know I will be using at least one light (if not more) so it just makes since and saves time to go ahead and set one up. I had my friend Nina standing roughly where I wanted her, and then off in the distance I hear...

WHOO-WHOO! ....holy crap, here comes a train! I had no idea that the train still ran through this station! It was moving fairly slowly so I turned around, dialed my shutter speed down to around 1/15 sec. composed and took a few frames. I tried to keep the building in focus but still show the train as moving blur.

I liked this look so well, that I asked Nina to quickly jump next to the train, I turned my Nikon SB-800 around, zoomed the head to 50mm, pointed it at her, set my flash setting to Commander Mode TTL and banged away. That's how I got the image above.

I normally will manually select my flash power and use either my Nikon's D300 built in Commander Mode to trigger my flashes or use my CyberSyncs. However in a situation like this, I needed to work fast so I relied on my camera and flash to do the heavy lifting for me. At close range, this is something the Nikon Creative Lighting System absolutely excels at, with no other devices used.

So remember as a photographer, it always pays to be prepared and have everything planned ahead as much as possible, but what separates the pros from the amateurs is the ability to respond to a given situation, take the bull by the horns and go with it!

I liked the photo above so well, that I never even did my "planned shots". ....although I did squeak one or two more different ones in ....before the cops ran us off. We were trespassing. :)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 for Nikons!

The new and highly anticipated PocketWizard MiniTT1 radio transmitter for Nikon dSLRs and flashes is available for pre-order on Amazon!

These are just like the PocketWizard Flex TT5 and MiniTT1 transmitter/receiver combos that PocketWizard introduced for the Canon systems.

If you are in to using the TTL features with your camera and flash (and are a Nikon user) and are totally rocking the off-camera flash, then this will definitely be something you're interested in. As soon as someone does a full review of these, I'll post an update.

More to come

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Iced Tea Product Shot

as always, click on any photo for a bigger view..

I've had a few friends express interest in how I shot this so I thought I would blog about it to try to answer a few questions.

I really enjoy doing commercial type photography and this setup is pretty simple even though it may look difficult. The first thing I did was to find a cardboard box that I could use as my "light box". The reason I use this is to keep light from spilling all over my base that the glass of tea is setting on. Also, by using this box, the light comes from the top and leaves a small amount of shadow on either side of the glass giving it more of a defining edge.

After I cut my box up and added the piece of copy paper to the hole in the top for diffusion (you can see this in the photo above) I placed a piece of white foam core down as my base for the glass to rest on. I would have preferred white acrylic but I didn't have any so I used what was available.

Then I set up my lights. I knew I wanted a white "blown out" background and didn't want that light to spill on my glass of tea, so I set up a piece of white foam core on a chair behind the table about 2 feet away. Ideally I would have liked to have gotten the background further away but my place is small so I had to work with the space I have. To light the background, I placed an SB-800 (set in remote mode) under the table and placed the dome diffuser on it because I wanted an even coverage on the background.

Then, to light the glass of tea, I place another SB-800 (in remote mode) on a stand to the left and added a Honl snoot to the flash. The reason I used the snoot was I didn't want that light spilling all over my base and accidentally adding light to my subject. So now I have complete control over the light on my background and the light on my subject, controlled independently. The snoot does a good job of restricting the spread of light. Its hitting the diffusion material on top of the box pretty evenly.

Next its time to take a few test shots. The first thing I did was to make sure my background light looked the way I wanted it to. I set my camera to its fastest native flash sync speed at 1/250 of a second, my ISO to its lowest setting 100 (for the best quality) and guessed at an aperture of f/8. I had my power on the background light set to 1/8 power and when I took the first shot, I noticed it was just a tad too dark for my taste. So rather than opening up my aperture, I decided to increase the flash power. I didn't open up my aperture anymore because I wanted to retain the most focus and detail on the glass of tea as I could. So changing the flash power to 1/4 did the trick. Background light, check.

Then I took a test shot with my key light (the snooted SB-800). Since I already had a good working aperture and shutter speed, I now only needed to dial in the right amount of power on this flash to light my subject, which just also happened to be 1/4 power.

Both of these flashes were set to remote and I triggered them with my D300's built in CLS system using the pop-up flash as a commander for the speedlights. I also set the power settings on each flash from the camera. I could've used TTL settings on the flashes and dialed compensation to suit, but I find that dialing the power in manually on my flashes gives me a more repeatable result and I've been doing this long enough now that I usually get my lights right the first time within one stop.

I shot this hand held since I knew that shooting at 1/250 sec and using flash, I would have no problems in getting a clear shot. However, the detail may have been a tad bit better had I used a tripod. I was working quickly though and didn't want to take the time to setup the tripod.

This shot is straight off the camera, I didn't need any levels, curves or contrast adjustments (even though I checked to be certain). I just re-sized it for the web and added my digital signature.

This setup works great for small product photography and if this is something you're interested in, I encourage you to try it. This is a low cost setup too provided that you have two lights that you can work with.

If anyone has any questions about this, please feel free to drop me a line.

::How to build your own DIY macro box::

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Starting with a Plan

EDITED: ...I found of a video of the one and only Ansel Adams who sums it up best. See below...

Sometimes, if you know you are going to have a tough assignment coming up, or just a hard shot in general, it never hurts to plan it out ahead.

That's what I did with the shot above. There's nothing wrong with running & gunning, but sometimes you are limited by time constraints, weather, your model's patience and other various factors. So its not a bad idea to at least try to preconceive your shot before you actually take it. That way you can get setup, take your shot and get done relatively quickly. Also, by previsualizing your shot, you have a better direction on how to actually compose and execute it.

Some of you may know that I am notoriously anal (say it ain't so) and I quite frequently will plan my shots way ahead of doing an actual shoot. I just can't help it.

Previsualization will make you a better photographer and will help you improve your technical skills. Its where the creative side, the technical side and hard work all come together to create a worthwhile image and not just an ordinary snapshot. By no means am I considering the above a Pulitzer prize winner, but it came out pretty much how I saw it in my head and I was happy that it only took a few test shots to get my lighting and composition right.

There are various ways you can plan your compositions too. Sometimes, just being on the scene, analyzing the light, layout and your subject matter will be all the planning you need. Other times, it might make more sense to get an idea of how you want your finished project to look.

That's where the work of art below (click on it for a larger view) comes in. I recently participated in a project on the Louisville Photography Collective (a local website for photographers to network and share ideas) where three photographers were to meet up, and then each photographer had to take a portrait of the other two. Rather than come up with some boring, standard portrait, I wanted to do something different. So, after my idea came to me, I set about sketching it out to work out the logistics of the shot and to get an idea of how I was going to compose it.

This sketch was done almost a week and a half before I took the shot. I ended up not executing it exactly how it was sketched out, but it was pretty darn close. Since I had the image embedded in my noggin', it was easy for me to set the shot up and start shooting. Although it did take me a little longer than I had planned, it would have taken me A LOT longer had I not thought it out first.

So the next time you have a project coming up, take the to time to plan it out a little beforehand and I'd be willing to bet the results will come out much better.

The Key to a Photograph from Ansel Adams from SilberStudios.Tv on Vimeo.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Speedlights or Studio Strobes?

Scott Kelby today over at Photoshop Insider provided a very in depth answer to a question that plaques many photographers...

'should I use speedlights or studio strobes?'.

Check out Scott's post for a very well thought out answer, including the price differences and the different types of gear.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

David Ernspiker 1970 - 2009

...a little off topic today

The world lost a great man and a musical icon last Thursday, April 9th, 2009. David Ernspiker, a friend and Louisville, Kentucky musician passed away in his home.

Dave was a virtuoso on the guitar, a talented musician, a youth minister at his church and an all around great guy. He will be deeply missed by those who knew him and loved him.

I remember the first time I met him...

Many years ago I had walked in Willis Music at the Oxmoor mall in St. Matthews looking for some guitar sheet music, when this long haired guy in a jazzy silk shirt walked up to me and asked me if I was a guitarist. I sheepishly replied that I was not and trying to learn. He then asked me if I was interested in taking lessons and I told him that I tried that already, but it just didn't seem to work out.

That's when he told me he was a guitar teacher there at Willis Music. Then he picked up a guitar off of the shelf, plugged it in to an amp, cranked the volume up REALLY loud and started blazing Hendrix tunes! At that point, I knew he would be a great teacher. After he got through with his maddening display of fretboard wizardry, he set it down, looked at me and said "when can I sign you up?"

I signed up that day. He told me to bring a song for our first lesson and he would have me playing it before I left ...I thought this would be a miracle, but he delivered what he promised.

I took lessons from Dave for another year and a half with him very patiently helping me hone my guitar skills. He became a good friend and an inspiration to me.

I will miss him greatly and somehow I know he is busting out great guitar riffs for everyone in Heaven.

Below is a video of Dave jamming out "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix... do yourself a favor and check it out, I'm sure he will be smiling about it somewhere.

To see more of Dave's videos, CLICK HERE.


David Ernspiker
The Big Rock Show
Dave on YouTube

Monday, April 6, 2009

I NEED a Studio!!!

...or so I thought for a long time.

How many times have you said to yourself, 'gee, if only I had a studio, I could get this type of shot'? Well, I know I've said that a lot! But I'm starting to learn, in all honesty, 90% of the time you can get by without one.

I love shooting portraits. I absolutely do. Its so cool to try to capture an essence of someone regardless whether you have known them for years or have only just met. I like meeting new people and socializing with old friends too so this just goes hand-in-hand with being a "portrait shooter".

My favorite type of portraits though, by far, are an environmental portraits. I would much rather photograph someone in their environment than in a studio and I love shooting outside least when the weather is nice. There are so many cool backgrounds you can find, right in your own backyard. Plus, photographing someone in their own environment tells the viewer a little bit more about that person.

That being said, there are those times when a "studio look" is just what the doctor ordered. I have for many years now wished that I had a studio to do some of those cool portraits I have seen in magazines and on the internet. However, if you're like me, you probably don't have enough space in your home to set up a studio and you may not have enough money or the ability to rent a location as a studio.

So, what do you do?

Well, getting a "studio look" is a little easier than you might think with just a few speedlights and modifiers. You don't really need big monoblocs and power packs, although I will admit I'd like to have a few.

If you have about 7 square feet, and a bed sheet, or even better, a collapsible background, you can get some pretty cool headshots and 3/4 portraits with a simple setup.

Above is my studio. It consists of a Botero #23 collapsible background, a few Nikon speedlights, a shoot thru umbrella, a Lumiquest SBIII and a few gels. You could very easily do this with one speedlight and a bed sheet hung on the wall, but I have this stuff, so its what I use.

This portrait (of my friend and fellow photographer Michela) is one of my favorites I've done recently and it was done with the very same setup you see above; nothing fancy, just a few flashes and modifiers. The setup above can also be arranged in many different configurations for different looks.

I used the same setup as above for this self portrait, only my main light was modified with a $30 DIY beauty dish I made for the key light, and another speedlight with a Honl grid for my kicker. Both of these flashes had CTO gels on them. Another speedlight was used with a blue gel on my background.

The cool thing about this setup is that I can tear it down in 15 minutes, pack it away in one case, and carry it with me anywhere. Its nice to have an instant studio that you can take with you anywhere, just in case you need this type of look.

I hope this may dispel any ideas that you absolutely NEED a studio to get these types of shot ...cause you just plain don't.

When this blog and/or my photos start making me loads of money, then I'm getting myself a studio ....and I bet I don't shoot 10% of my stuff in there. :)

For some resources on small flash photography, check out these...

1. The Strobist Blog
2. The Hot Shoe Diaries by Joe McNally
3. Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography by Kirk Tuck

Saturday, March 14, 2009

CyberSyncs Review!

CyberSyncs always, click on any photo for a larger view
My awesome girlfriend (photographer and artist)Jenn, bought me a set of CyberSyncs!! I got a CyberSync CST transmitter and two CyberSync CSRB receivers. These are made by Paul C. Buff, the same company that manufactures White Lighting and Alien Bees flash/strobe units. Since receiving these, I decided to do an in-depth review for people who are interested in purchasing a quality set of radio triggers.

I shoot with Nikon digital SLRs and Nikon speedlights so all of my tests are (equipment wise) relative to Nikon stuff. However, the CyberSyncs will work with any system out there!

The first thing I noticed when receiving my CyberSyncs was the build quality. These are much nicer than my old Cactus Wireless flash triggers. They feel much more durable, not too much bigger and have easy access to the buttons and battery compartments. The receivers use standard AA batteries and the transmitter uses a lithium coin cell type battery that you can find at just about any drug store. The receivers and transmitter came with all of the cables you will need to connect these to your speedlights.

However, my Nikon SB-600's do not have a PC connector so I had to purchase a PC to Flash hotshoe adapter to connect my CyberSync receivers to my flashes. I went with the brand Flash Zebra as that is what is recommended on the Alien Bees website. To the right is a setup showing how I connect the receivers to my Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 speedlights.

I use a "double" method for attaching the receivers to the speedlights. I just simply use velcro and lanyards. I picked up the lanyards at a local camera store and simply placed the small end of the lanyard into the battery compartment door. Using both methods, just assures that they will stay firmly attached ....and I like security! Check out this guy's photo on flickr, its exactly what I did.

After attaching the receivers to the flashes (the transmitter simply mounts on the hotshoe of your camera), I was ready to test them out. The first thing I tried was to see how well the signals would work down a long hall and through other rooms.

So, I mounted a Nikon SB-800 on a light stand with a shoot through umbrella and one of the CSRB receivers. I placed the light in my girlfriend's bedroom so that the camera couldn't see it, then had Jenn, my girlfriend, sit in the doorway as a test model ---she helps me out more than you could possibly know! I then went down to the end of the hall and fired a test shot ...BINGO worked like a charm, every single time! Awesome!

Ok, so we have the "shooting through rooms" tested, now its time to try a little distance.

With the same rig as above (except the umbrella), I went outside and placed the light at one end of the parking lot, walked about 25 feet and fired a test shot. Perfect! So I then walked another 25 feet out to 50 feet away, and fired another test shot. Perfect! Off to the end of the parking lot it was!

Finally, after running out of parking lot space, at 240 feet away from my flash, I fired yet another test shot. Perfect! At this point I can barely see my flash anyway, and I can hardly imagine wanting to shoot further from my subject than this. The Alien Bees website says that these will fire at 600 feet so I guess if want to shoot someone on top of a building, I will have that range. =)

One last little goody about the CyberSyncs. I shoot with a Nikon D300 as my primary body, and a Nikon D70 as my backup body. Unfortunately, the D300 will only sync with the CyberSyncs at 1/320 before you start to catch the shutter plane creeping across the frame. However, I have successfully synced the D70 at 1/2000 of a second which makes for some very cool high speed syncing fun! If you're a Nikon shooter and don't have a D70 or a D70s ...get one, they are loads of fun!

So, overall, I am very happy with with the CyberSyncs. I have used these with as many as 6 speedlights and not had a single misfire. The only issue I have noticed is that Nikon Speedlights go in to standby mode (which you can turn off) after a little while, so you need to hit the "test" button on the transmitter to 'wake them up' before firing off a few shots.

My only real complaints of the CyberSyncs are:

1. They REALLY need to put an On/Off switch on these (I hope you're listening, Paul C. Buff company) because once you turn these on, they will stay on for an hour before powering down. The only thing you can do is take a battery out of them to prevent them from staying on. I haven't had them long enough to test the battery life. Also, the buttons on the CST and CSRB are now flush with the body, so they don't accidentally turn on while in your bag and run the batteries down. The older models had buttons that stuck out a little bit from the body ---nice improvement!

2. They could have put some sort of lanyard on there so you don't have to come up with a way to mount these to your speedlights. However, considering the quality of these, that is in my opinion, a slight annoyance and not really a problem.

Would I recommend these to anyone wanting to use radio triggers for off camera flash? ABSOLUTELY INDEEDY I would! They simply rock!

...and just so you other Nikon shooters know, I am not giving up my sweet, built-in Creative Lighting System that Nikon has so graciously supplied me with, I just want something to use when that system won't get it done ....which honestly, isn't too often. That being said, the CyberSyncs are a load of fun, and I'm sure I will be using these more frequently.


To read up more on the CyberSyncs check out this link...

Alien Bees CyberSyncs