Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today in the U.S. we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday which basically means spending time with family, eating copious amounts of food, watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and football, with the intermediate nap in between.  Hopefully, all of us are able to find things that we are thankful for in this menagerie of turkey induced comas, family.. uh, discussions, and frequent bathroom visits.  However, if you're like me (who btw is up bright and early cooking a mess of food) then at some point you get restless and need a little break from all of it.  If that's the case, then here are some really cool links, some photography related and some not, to give you something to do in the down time.

At the top of the post is one of my all-time favorite Thanksgiving-y things, a video clip from the old sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.

If you want to be inspired by some amazing photography, check out this link on Twisted Sifter of their picks for the 75 best photos of 2013.

Perhaps you know a photographer that would like a good book for Christmas?  If so, one of the best I have read... ever, is the latest book by Gregory Heisler called "Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer".  David Hobby of the Strobist blog did a pretty cool review of this book if you'd like to find out more about it.

If you're looking to start your holiday shopping early, and you need to get something cool for that photographer in your life, hop on over to Outdoor Photo Gear!  They are offering all kinds of great discounts for the weekend.  Enjoy another fantastic performance by Troy the Turkey below!

Another cool thing to check out for the early, photography holiday shoppers is Scott Kelby's Gonzo Holiday Gear Guide!  He posts links to items he would recommend to photography buddies and the prices range from pretty cheap to umm.. pretty not-so cheap, but a lot of cool stuff on there!

Need to know how long to cook your turkey this year without relying on a timer?  Check out this cool post Netflix came up with over on Gizmodo's website!

Don't have any flashes or strobes?  No problem, here's a cool article on the Profoto blog about how to use just a reflector to get the most out of your portrait photography!

If you're in to time-lapse photography then you have to check out this video that photographer Eric Stemen made of Louisville, Kentucky.  I posted this on Facebook some time ago and all locals loved it, but even if you're not local, this is still a really inspiring piece of work!

One more awesome video... this was put together by photographers Chris McLennan & Ollie Dale.  They rigged a Nikon D800 on a remote control car chassis and ran it in to a pride of lions.  Needless to say, they walked away with some absolutely awesome photos!

Well, hopefully this will give you plenty of stuff to enjoy while sneaking away from the family today.

Hope everyone has a very Happy Thanksgiving and also, happy first day of Hanukkah to those whose celebrate!

See you next time!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Don't Miss Opportunities!

Whew!  Man it has been quite some time since I've had time to sit down and write a blog post.  Family matters, a full time job and shooting on the side certainly takes up a lot of our lives, but I don't think I'd have it any other way.  Also, any day I have a camera in my hands is a good day for me, regardless if its a paying job or just documenting my family and friends.

Recently we found out that our oldest daughter is going to be blessing us with another grandchild!  I know what you're thinking, I'm much too young and good looking to be a grandfather ...of two, but strange miracles happen every day. :)  We try to get all the kids together at least once a week for dinner just to hang out and talk about what all is going on in our lives, so this weekend I thought it would be a good opportunity to get a photograph of all the kids together since they were here.  Actually, I should point out that this was our granddaughter's idea, not mine

This was quite the informal process as no one was clothing coordinated, or even looking their best, but one thing I have figured out is, don't miss out on these opportunities because some day, they might not be there.  Plus, its not exactly easy to talk everyone in to getting their portrait taken individually, let alone in a group photo.  I also have to admit, that this in no way represents my best work, but it most definitely represents some of my most important work to me.

So, even though I wanted this post to be more about not missing opportunities, I couldn't help but include a few technical details as well.  This was actually a pretty easy portrait to put together quickly.  The portrait above was shot on a 4 foot wide white seamless.  If someone had asked me if I could take a family portrait for them on a white seamless, I would never have attempted that on this background because it is just not wide enough to accommodate shots like this, but you can in fact make it work.  I do have the ability to do family shots on white, but just not in my home studio.  I keep the 4 foot set up at home just do single portraits, small commercial projects and headshots; for that it works quite well.

To get a group of 5 on a 4 foot background, you really have to compact the group and think about positioning to make it work.  Also, it doesn't hurt that some of the participants in this shot were "smaller than average".  Again, its not a shot that I would suggest to potential clients, but for my purposes it worked out quite nicely.  Since our oldest daughter is pregnant, we put her in the chair and set her daughter on her lap.  Our youngest daughter is the next smallest so it made sense to just slide her next to them.  Then, since both of our boys are quite tall (and thankfully slim) I just positioned them in the back... man, they grow up so darn fast!  I was only able to get two shots before the group lost interest and this was the better of the two.

To light these guys, I simply used two Nikon SB-800s camera left and camera right in Westcott shoot thru umbrellas at the same power setting.  This created a nice, simply broad light that illuminated everyone evenly and added a little light to the background as well, since I had my models positioned so closely to it.  Both flashes were triggered with my pop-up flash using Nikon's built in CLS system.  To test my lights before my subjects stepped in, I relied on my old tried and true light metering method... my hand and the LCD on the back of my camera.  It took two exposures to get my lights set where I needed them, see the high tech method below. :)  Both images are straight out of camera other than putting them together in post.

For what its worth, I have the LCD on my camera set to match the same output that shows up on my calibrated monitor, that way I can be certain of the image on the LCD.  Also, I use the highlight indicators (the blinkies) on the LCD to help me see any blown out areas.

Also, so you can see the very limited space I have to work in and the light set up, check out the iPhone pic below.  You can tell right off that the background is pretty darn narrow.  Also, what is hard to tell in this pic is the direction those umbrellas are pointing.  I have each one moved slightly past center so that the light will feather a little, providing a broader sweep of light.  However, since I was using those shoot thru umbrellas, which throw light everywhere, the actual positioning could have been different, but whenever you are lighting anything, inches really matter, so I always try to get my lights set in the best position possible to eliminate any tedious post work later.

I should also note that the ceiling in this room is white, and less than 8 feet tall, so its going to throw back a little fill light on my subjects when using umbrellas.  If I didn't want that fill, I would have chosen to use softboxes or something that has an edge to it, or a grid on it, to keep that light from flying all over the place.

As far as power settings go, I believe I was using slightly more than 1/4 power on each flash.  Generally, with single portraits I can get away with 1/4 power and a larger aperture, but since I was shooting a group of 5, I chose to stop my aperture down f/7.1 to make sure I kept everyone in focus, then just increased the power a little.  At a power setting of 1/3.2 I was still getting good recycle times so I was able to bang off a few shots quickly before my subjects lost interest.

My only real critique of the portrait at the top of this post is, had I had a little more time to play with the lighting, I probably would have added one more, very slight fill light to the center, to eliminate that shadow on the background between the two boys' heads.  Its not a big thing, but still annoying to me... every photographer should be their own worst critic.

One other quick lighting set up shot I wanted to share... sometimes you have to take whatever models you have available to check your lighting setups. :)  
I hope this post reminds everyone of the importance to never overlook opportunities to create memories for yourself and your family.  The portrait I took won't win any Pulitzer prizes, but it brought a lot of smiles to my family and will most likely be around for many years to come.  In my mind, there's really no more important quality to a photograph than that.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bright Field Lighting


Last week I did a blog post on how easy it is to light glass using the dark field technique with one flash, so this week I thought I would write a post on how to shoot the same subject matter using the bright field lighting technique.

This technique is essentially the same type of lighting set up except that instead of having a black background and white edge lighting on the subject, we have a bright background with dark edge lighting on the subject.  When lighting glass, its almost always important to have the edge defined in some way or another.  While you can light glass from the front to show its true texture, defining the edge is what really defines the shape of the glass itself.

When doing this technique, there are a few important things to consider.  Obviously, a white (or light colored) background is needed but also, you need some black panels for the dark lines on the edge of the glass.  There are several ways to do this but my solution for this was to tack up a piece of black background paper to the wall, then tack a piece of white paper in the center of the black for the background.  Also, the white background needs to be large enough to completely fill the frame of the composition but not be too big.  If its too big, the black edges won't be defined well enough and if its too small, the black paper will show in the frame.  So you want to make your white background at least a few inches bigger in all directions than the subject you are shooting.  Its really just a matter of trial and error, but you can see in the set up photo taken with my phone how this basically looks.

As far as light placement goes, I always place the light underneath the subject and point it back towards the background.  You could easily boom the light above as well, but this always takes up more room.  The set up I used takes up as minimal space as necessary to get the shot, which if you're like me and work in limited studio space, learning to condense your set ups can be quite handy.

For the images in this blog post, I used a pane of glass to rest the water glass on so that I would get that dark edge on the bottom of the glass as well, but I ended up shooting tighter crops.

For the camera settings, I shot this similar to the dark field lighting image I did in the previous blog post.  I find that using a smaller aperture gives better detail in the glass, especially if you're trying to include a little action in the shot, such as pouring water in the image at the top of the post.  With that in mind, I used an aperture of f/16 at 1/250 sec, ISO 200.  I believe my flash power was set around 1/4 or 1/8.  Surprisingly, it doesn't take as much power as you would think for these type images.  The flash I used was the Nikon SB-910 speedlight.

In the previous post I used radio triggers to trigger the off camera flash, but in this post, I used Nikon's CLS system to trigger the flash.  To avoid seeing the pre-flashes reflected in the glass I simply just held my hand in front of the pop-up flash.

You may notice that I used a tripod in these shots and also in the previous post.  While I have self-professed to not be a tripod user, in shooting things like this, I find that tripods are an essential tool.  Sometimes you have to make very slight adjustments to the placement of your subject, the background or a light so having your camera on a tripod really helps because its one more variable that you won't have to keep adjusting.

Once you get this shot down, experiment with different angles, gelled flashes and different types of glass or action.  When using bright field lighting, you don't have to have a solid white background.  In fact, sometimes it makes a cooler looking image to have less light on the background.  Also, by lowering the power on your flash, it helps you to really freeze action in an image such as the water splashing in this shot.  The lower your flash power, the faster the flash duration which is what essentially helps you to freeze things that are in motion.

The really hard part of an image like this is capturing the right moment of action.  I had to shoot several of these before I got an image where my timing was on.  I simply had my daughter hold the cubes of ice above the glass and drop them on the count of three.  You would think this would be fairly easy, but its much tougher than you think... but not impossible at all!  They actually make devices to help you capture action shots like this such as sound and light triggers, but I find that with just a little patience (and cleaning up between shots) that you can do this with minimal gear.

Also, in this shot, notice that the black edges are thicker than the ones in the shot at the top of the post.  I didn't move the glass, my camera or the distance between the glass to the background but what I did change was the flash power.  By lowering the flash power (and I zoomed the head a little) the spread of light on the wall decreased and allowed more black to show through.  If you didn't want this look, all you would have to do is move the glass closer to the wall, but I actually like the thicker, dark edges for this shot, I just think it works better with the composition, but that's one of the great things about these techniques, you can move things slightly and get completely different looks.

These are really fun techniques to do if you're in to lighting glass or other shiny, reflective or translucent objects and can be done simply with one flash and a few pieces of cardboard or paper.  If anyone has any questions about this technique, please sound off in the comments below!

Now, what type of lighting technique to do for the next blog post...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Dark Field Lighting


A friend of mine recently asked me about dark field / light field lighting and at the moment I didn't have enough time to give what I thought would be a thorough explanation.  So after thinking about it (when I did have some spare time) I thought I would just set up something quickly and post how I did it.  Sometimes pictures can say a lot more than words.

Dark field / bright field lighting is simply about creating good edge light or shadow on your subject and is often seen in photographs depicting glassware such as wine glasses, bottles etc.  This technique works really well for glassware because since glass is so reflective it will literally mirror anything in front of it, including you, your camera and your light source.  So in order to light something that reflective, sometimes its better to not actually light that subject, but rather to rim light it to show its shape and physical characteristics.

First off there are two important things to consider when lighting any piece of glass.  First off, make sure its CLEAN... and I mean as spotless as you can get it.  Any little spot or imperfection will show up like a lighthouse through fog.  You can easily take this out in post, but you could spend a lot of time "fixing" things when if you just take a little time before hand, it could save you a lot of effort after the fact.  With stemware, I usually hand wash it, dry it slightly with a towel then polish it with a paper towel.  You don't want any lint left over from cloth towels so that's why I finish with paper towels.  Also, watch those paper towels because cheap ones can wear out quickly and leave little bits of paper on your glass.  After you clean it, inspect it thoroughly for any blemishes and if you find one, simply hit it again.  Like I said, you can also take care of this in post, but one advantage to cleaning your subject is that it makes it very shiny which will also add to the final effect of the image.

The next thing to consider is, since glass is convex and has a mirror like surface, it will literally reflect everything in front of it.  So if you want to do this from a perfectionist stand point, the best way to get good results is to hang up a large black sheet between your camera and your subject then cut a slit in the sheet and point your lens through that.  That way, the only thing the glass will see is black, which in dark field lighting is what you usually want.  I set my shot up quickly and didn't bother to do this step though, I simply cleaned the final image up in post which was basically a curves adjustment layer and a little clone stamping... 5 minutes top. 

Another thing to consider is that when you are aiming a light source back toward your camera, you are going to get some flaring or areas that are washed out with light (usually on the edges of your image).  To prevent this, the black sheet will help immensely, or you can position more black cards on either side of the glass hanging parallel to the softbox.  This cuts down the flares almost completely.  I just chose to clean up the image in post as the flaring was minimal.  Both ways work, it just depends on how much time you have.  Normally, I use the black cards to do this.

Also, because of the glass's reflectiveness, make sure no windows or overhead lights are on as, believe it or not, even with fast shutter speeds these can still show up in the glass.  For these types of shots I also use radio triggers because as much as I love Nikon's CLS system, the preflash will show up in the glass even if you have the output set to "--" or zero.  Again, glass is very, very reflective so considering this upfront will save you time in post.  My AF assist light even showed up in a shot or two so eventually I started holding my hand in front of it for the final image.

With these two considerations out of the way, lets take a look at how this was lit.  There are several ways to do this, but after shooting these for years I've found two different ways I like to do this depending on how big the subject is.  For the shot above, I simply put a 24" softbox with a single speedlight (flash) behind the glass pointed back towards the camera.  Then, in between the softbox and the glass I placed an opaque black card, this is the background for the glass and also prevents the softbox from shooting right through the glass.  The black card behind the glass only needs to be big enough to fill the frame of your camera and to just be slightly bigger than the glass itself.  That way, the light from the softbox can literally wrap around the black card and rim light your glass.  You can experiment with different distances of the glass to the softbox but in this situation I find that having the glass as close as possible to the black card usually gives the best result.  If you move the glass further from the black card the rim lights on your glass will become thicker, but light will also start to spill in through the glass leaving sort of a "foggy" look.  You can experiment though for what gives you the look you want.  In this first setup shot (taken with my iPhone) you can see what it looks like from the perspective of the camera.  You can click on any image for a larger view!

For this shot again, I simply had the black card that was the background resting against the softbox and had another black card underneath the glass for a base.  You can see that in this next setup image.  Also note that I have the glass setting on a stool instead of a table.  You can use a table but it seems I get better edge definition when I use a stool, or even better, using a piece of glass as the base resting on two sawhorses (or stacks of books or whatever else you can find).  I simply didn't want to take the time to get out the sheet of glass and set it up.  However, it does create a different look and gives a reflection of the wine glass (or in this case a martini glass) in the base.  If you have a pane of glass, you should experiment with that as well, it does create a nice effect.

Keep in mind this was done with one off camera flash and not even anywhere close to maximum power.  Another way to do this (and the method I prefer for larger items) is to hang up a piece of white paper, and instead of using a softbox, simply fire your flash in to the white paper and use that as your softbox.  The white paper can be as large or as small as you wish and is a cheap and easy way to create a large light source.  I keep a piece of white seamless stapled to the wall in my studio simply because I use it so often.  By having it literally on the wall also keeps me from having to use stands for support which in turn, frees up floor space in my studio.  It also comes in handy for head shots and myriad of other projects.  You can see how this "thrifty" set up looks in this other iPhone pic.  This method does require a little more power from your flash though, but still not enough to stress it to the point of overheating, and wine glasses don't move that fast so you don't have to worry about those quick recycle times. ;)

As far as camera settings go, unless I'm going for a more creative look (like using limited depth of field) I tend to stop my aperture down quite a bit as it seems to give more detail in the final image.  I think for the shot at the top of the post, I used f/18 at 1/250 sec ISO 800.  If I had paid attention more to my camera settings, I would have dropped the ISO to 200 and used an aperture of around f/16 or f/11.  That's what I get for being in a rush.  The flash power in the softbox was set to 1/4 power.

Once you have this set up and after you get the initial shot you were looking for, play around with it a bit, shoot odd angles, add some liquid to the glass, shoot horizontal and vertical just to see what you come up with.  Just because you have a good thing, don't give up on it.  You might find that you will get an even better image that you weren't expecting and also, you may learn a couple of new tricks in the process.  You can mix up your aperture and flash settings for different looks.  You can flag off one side of the subject with another black card so that you're only lighting one side of the image.  You can use gels for a different color effect, the possibilities are endless.  Once you learn this technique, it really yields a lot of other cool effects and ideas.

Next time on the blog, I'll do a bright field lighting.

Hope this helps a few folks and inspires you try this out for yourself.  If anyone has any questions about this technique, just sound off in the comments!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Phottix Mitros TTL Flash for Nikon Review

Phottix Mitros TTL Flash for Nikon

There is a new kid in town, the Phottix Mitros TTL flash and if you're in the market for a good, TTL flash for your Nikon (or Canon) camera and don't want pay the equivalent of a high-end car payment, then this is definitely an option to consider.

Ever since Phottix released the Mitros for Canon, I've been frothing at the mouth to try the Nikon version out which is now on the market.  Why?  Because (as many of you may know) I'm a die hard Nikon fan, especially their flashes and CLS system, so when another flash came out on the market claiming to work seamlessly with the CLS system for considerably less cash, I'll admit my curiosity peaked.  The good folks at Outdoor Photo Gear got a few in and gave me one to run through the ringer, so below is my review...

First off, this is not some cheap knock-off.  This flash is built as good as any of the popular brand big boys and feels like a really solid piece of equipment.  It has a fully rotating head, a metal shoe and a rubber skirt to protect the shoe with a locking pin design just like the big boys.  It also has a simple array of buttons that control all the flash functions and a back-lit screen.  A feature I really like on this flash is the sliding on/off button as opposed to the recessed button on other flashes.  I sometimes fumble turning my Nikons on, but this one is incredibly easy to handle.  Small details like this add up big time in my opinion.  The controls may not be as user friendly as on the Nikon SB-910 but its not a deal breaker by any means (more on that in a bit).

Also, I tested the Mitros against a Nikon SB-910 and noticed a little difference in power, the SB-910 being slightly more powerful but the Mitros was more powerful than the Nikon SB-800.  I didn't use a light meter to test this, it was simply a matter of taking a portrait with the camera settings the exact same and the flash to subject distance the exact same.  Then I simply swapped the three flashes in and out, and adjusted the power as necessary to get a good exposure on my subject.  The Mitros is also in the same ballpark size-wise as the SB-910, which pretty much makes it appear to dwarf the old, reliable SB-800 flashes.  In the lineup below, from left to right, is the Nikon SB-800, the Phottix Mitros and the Nikon SB-910.  As always, you can click on any image for a larger view.

The first tests I did were to see how it handled in TTL mode on and off camera.  There are a few other excellent manual flashes out there but since this one has TTL capabilities, I thought this should be where the hard hitting testing should go.  For my first test, I simply set the flash to TTL mode and popped it on my camera, and in a nutshell, it worked every single time.  Once or twice I had to adjust the flash exposure compensation (FEC) up a tad to get a good exposure, but that is a fairly simple and quick adjustment done on the flash.  I shot several different types of situations with the Mitros on camera in TTL mode and it simply did what its supposed to do, or what you would expect it to do.

The next test was to see how it handled the CLS signals and get it off camera.  I mounted the Mitros on a stand with a shoot thru umbrella camera right and took a test shot.  In the camera I set the flash mode to CLS, using the pop-up flash as the commander and set the output power on the off camera Mitros to TTL.  Also, it should be noted that when using this flash (just like the Nikon flashes) you need to make sure you have the same channel and group number settings in camera that you use on the flash.  I also did these first shots in Aperture priority mode because I just wanted to see how much variance would show up using the Mitros in TTL mode.  Since I was in a studio environment, I noticed very little change if any at all.  Also, I noticed no color casts.  Good news so far!  So then I decided to add another Nikon flash as a hairlight just to see if throwing another flash in the mix would throw off the signals.  I dialed the flash power in manually for this flash just to see if it made any difference.  So, the key light was on TTL mode with no FEC dialed in, and the hairlight light was on manual mode, both triggered with the pop-up flash using CLS and it fired off every single time.  Well this is child's play right?  So lets test it out with something a little more difficult, outside and using High Speed Sync.

Anyone who is familiar with the CLS system knows that triggering a flash outside in broad daylight can be a challenge.  Mostly though, this is simply because the eye on the off camera flash has to see the signal from the on camera triggering flash or it can't fire.  Also, sometimes, using the pop-up flash outside doesn't create a strong enough pulse of light for the off camera flash to see.  This is a simple fix though by using another flash on camera as the master.  In any case, using this system outside is always more of a challenge than using it indoors so I thought this would be a good test to do.

So for this test, I decided right off the bat to test the Mitros' high speed syncing capabilities.  It should be noted that if your camera doesn't have this feature, then the Mitros won't high speed sync... unless you have triggers that enable that feature... which I haven't tried yet.  This is a test to see how the Mitros works with the CLS system using the Auto FP High Speed Sync feature engaged on the camera.  I placed the Mitros (again) camera right in a shoot thru umbrella and used a Nikon SB-910 on my camera as the master flash.  The settings for this shot were f/2.8 at 1/2000 second at ISO 200.  I was using matrix metering on the camera and shooting in manual.  I actually could have shot this at many different shutter speeds depending on how bright or dark I wanted the background to look but I just chose one that I felt would stress the flash to create a good image.  I think for this shot I had to dial in +1 FEC to get my model lit appropriately.  Lexi (my model) was actually standing in the shade of a tree in our front yard... I didn't want to push the flash too hard... just yet.  I shot several of these, and the Mitros went off every single time.

Something I have noticed by now with the Mitros is that when it fires, it does make an audible chirp that lets you know that it fired, however its very low in volume so its hard to notice.  I researched the manual quite thoroughly to see if this is something that can be changed but the only available option was to turn the sound off.  With the Nikon flashes you get a beep that tells you the flash has fired and then you get another beep that tells you that the flash has recycled and is ready to fire again.  This is a feature that I dearly love about the Nikon flashes that the Mitros doesn't quite have yet.  However, the Mitros does have a USB input so maybe this is something that could be fixed with a firmware upgrade somewhere down the road.  Phottix are you guys listening?  :)  In any case, its not a deal breaker.

On to the next test.  So I got Lexi out of the comfortable shade and in to the searing sun.  It was right around 4PM EST so the sun was still pretty high over head and although there were a few clouds about, there were none that were shading us... my poor model. ;)  I used the same setup as the previous shot except I went to 1/4000 sec on the shutter speed (still f/2.8) to see if could get a little more saturation in the sky.  Again, I was using an on camera Nikon SB-910 as the master, and the Mitros was off camera right in a shoot thru umbrella.  For the first portrait I took the Mitros triggered with no issues, but on the second photo, I got a little further away from my model and noticed that the Mitros wasn't firing.  This is because on the Mitros, the flash "eye" is actually on the front of the flash whereas on the Nikon models its on the side.  After using the Mitros for a bit, I think I actually prefer that the eye of the flash be on one of the sides as opposed to directly in front of the flash.  So, to get the Mitros to fire at the distance I was working at from my subject, I simply spun the body of the flash around towards me and angled the head back in to the umbrella, and it fired.  Every. Single. Time.  I even got back about 20 feet and was still able to get the Mitros to fire.

Since this test worked out so well, I decided to swap my flashes out.  This time I used the Mitros on camera as a Master Flash and used the Nikon SB-910 off camera as the slaved flash.  The menu on the Mitros for the master setting took a little fiddling with to get everything set, but once I figured it out, it was a breeze to make adjustments.  The Mitros as a master works just like the Nikon flashes in that it gives you full control over type of output (Manual/TTL/Off) and power settings for the master and three more groups:  A, B & C.  Be sure to read the Mitros' manual though as out of the box the controls can be a little puzzling, but with a quick skim of the manual, and a little practice, it becomes fairly intuitive to use.

So my next test was to see how far away from the flash and my subject I could get and still have the flash fire, but this time I set the flash to Optical Slave mode.  Long story short, I ran out of room to back up yet the flash kept on firing.  The Mitros' optical slave is VERY sensitive and my last working distance was about 60 feet.  I suspect I could have moved back much further and kept it firing, and keep in mind this is in bright, afternoon sunlight!  This test would have been better if I had a longer lens on the camera.  I was actually using a 24-70 which on my body equals to about 36-105 and on this shot I had the lens racked out to 105mm.  This test was convincing enough though so I didn't bother going in and getting a longer lens.

For my last test I wanted to see how well it would work with my radio triggers.  I've been using Cybersyncs for several years now and while they are a "no-frills" set of triggers, they have worked flawlessly for me.  They only trigger the flash which is all I need most of the time since I tend to use CLS about 90% of the time.  So I put the CST Transmitter on the camera and the CSRB receiver on the Mitros flash.  Another cool thing about the Mitros is that it does not incorporate a PC sync jack, I hate those things!  They have to be the worst method out there for connecting a receiver to your flash.  Instead of the PC port the Mitros have a 3.5mm sync jack and it also comes with a 3.5 to 3.5 sync cable, Suh-Weet!

Editor's note:  we decided to go with something a little more lively for this shot.

After getting everything connected, we found a different spot to shoot in (other than our yard) and took a few test shots.  Using the radio triggers, I simply set the Mitros to manual mode and dialed in the power that I thought would work.  For these shots I believe I had the power set to full or 1/1.  It was pretty darn bright out and rather than using High Speed Sync I decided to use my native flash sync speed of 1/250 sec which meant stopping my aperture down to f/18 to get the desired look I wanted in the background.  I also had to keep the flash in reasonably close to my model (I think it was about 4 feet away) but since it was unmodified, it still had enough power to illuminate my subject.

Oh and another note, after all the frames we shot today, including many full power pops with the Mitros, the battery indicator on the LCD showed that we were still at full charge!  That's sexy.

So lets close this up.  After playing with the Mitros all day I can safely say that if you are looking for a new flash that is TTL capable and CLS compliant then I would be hard pressed to not recommend this flash to anyone and I am a diehard Nikon fanboy.  This flash does seem to be an excellent Nikon flash replacement and you know what's even better?

Nikon SB-910:  $546.95
Phottix Mitros:  $299.99

Yikes!  That is a HUGE difference for a very similar flash unit.  Lets look at the Pros and Cons of the Phottix Mitros.


- $299.99 ...that may be the best bargaining chip out of the bunch
- CLS and TTL capable
- Sturdy build and rock solid reliability
- 3.5mm sync port
- I love the On/Off switch
- High Speed Sync capable
- Optical slave option
- Use as a Master Flash
- Battery meter
- ...many more, including a huge customizable functions menu (which I didn't even get in to)


- Eye placement, I really don't like that the eye of the flash is located on the front, but since the flash rotates in every direction, its not a big issue
- Beep notifications are low volume and non existent for recycle status
- TTL mode tends to underexpose about a stop when compared to using the SB-910, but since its easy to make a FEC adjustment, that's really no issue either.
- No built in gel holder (didn't get in to that in the post)
- Zoom only goes to 105 mm

When you get the Mitros it does come with a collection of goodies too.  First off, it does have its own dome diffuser which comes in handy quite frequently.  Its shaped a little differently than the Stofen type diffusers and although I didn't test it out, it looks pretty cool.  You also get a 3.5mm to 3.5mm sync cable, a plastic foot that has a 1/4-20 threaded socket for attaching to light stands or tripods, a USB cable that will allow for firmware upgrades down the road and also a proprietary port for external battery packs.  Phottix makes a battery pack that will work with this flash, but if you have the Nikon battery packs the Mitros also comes with an adapter so that you can use those units.  I was surprised to see that there wasn't a user manual in the case, but there was a USB thumbdrive.  After popping that in to my computer, I realized they had put the user manual on there!  How cool is that?  Also, the Mitros comes with a killer case that is better than any of the Nikon cases I have.  It seems more rugged and has pockets on the sides for your extra cables.  Very cool.

In summary, this is one awesome flash!  It has all the capabilities of the big boys for about $250 less than what the flagship flashes cost.  Also, I don't believe there is another non-major label flash on the market that can compare with this and as a Nikon fanboy, I hope Nikon is paying attention because this puppy is a new serious contender!

Would I recommend this to someone looking for a Nikon flash but not sure about spending the money?  Yes, I most definitely would!  Matter of fact, I think I will be adding one or two of these to my Nikon flash family.

Outdoor Photo Gear has a few of these in stock, so if you're interested, I'd jump on them now because I suspect once word gets out, these guys are going to go fast.

The Strobist also did an excellent review on his blog so you might want to check that out for his thoughts as well.

If anyone has any questions that I didn't address, please sound off in the comments!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 4th of July!!

Fireworks 3

Today in the U.S. is when we celebrate our Independence as a free nation and when the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Most of us celebrate by having cookouts, spending time with family, enjoying a few tasty beverages and watching fireworks.

If you're a photographer, chances are you'll be trying to photograph some (or all) of these events.  Below is a list of awesome links to help you get the most out of your fireworks photography!

Hope everyone has a happy 4th and you get some good pics!

Joe McNally - Prepping for the 4th

Scott Kelby - How to Shoot Fireworks

Outdoor Photo Gear - Tips to Make Your Fireworks Photos Stand Out

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Personal Projects and Ballerinas

Every once in a while between the odd photography jobs and my day to day work, I get the chance to work on personal photography projects.  I can't stress enough how important I think personal projects are.  They give you a reprieve from a lot of the other work you do, but also help to keep the passion and creative juices flowing... and possibly help you to learn something new along the way.

This particular project was something that was in the planning literally for years.  I first saw Amelia in a few photos that a friend and accomplished photographer had taken and I knew the moment I saw those photos, that I had to photograph her.  I am not a "model photographer" by any means, but Amelia's grace, poise and athletic ability was something I definitely wanted to try to capture on film... uhhh, pixels.

So, I messaged her and we started discussing ideas and locations for the shoot but with her and my schedules it was just hard for us both to get on the same page.  However, we finally pulled it off and how fun it was!  Amelia is not only a classically trained ballet dancer, but she is also the current Miss University of Louisville and a chemical engineer to boot!  That's a lot of talent!!!

Since Amelia is so closely tied to the city of Louisville, and because I am fascinated by the athletic ability of ballet dancers, we decided to photograph her in various dance positions but instead of in a studio, we shot on the streets of Louisville in various iconic locations.  The juxtaposition of an extremely talented, graceful dancer in urban environments really appealed to me, and fortunately it did for her as well.

From a technical standpoint, all of these portraits were lit very simply using either a Westcott Double Fold Umbrella or a small, portable softbox, the Lumiquest SBIII and Nikon speedlights.  Why speedlights and not big strobes?  Well, for one, I knew that due to the time of day we had scheduled to shoot in, we would not need to overpower the sun so flashes would work just fine.  Also, because we would be moving quite quickly from location to location and mostly on foot, I wanted to pack as little gear as necessary to get the looks I was after without being over burdened with an excessive amount of gear.  As it was, I still took way more gear than I needed as my friend, assistant and talented photographer Don Lehman, can attest too.  Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it in my book.  In all fairness though, had I not had someone to help me lug around all of that gear, I probably would have packed a lighter kit... maybe, well... probably not.  I digress.

Amelia No. 1This first portrait was taken in front of The Louisville Palace Theater.  If you're from the area then you know this is definitely one of the most iconic locations in town.  Its an absolute pleasure to attend any show there as the theater has been restored to its original Baroque style which in itself is an amazingly beautiful place to visit, much less enjoy fine entertainment there of all sorts.  It was lit with one speedlight in a shoot thru umbrella camera left and triggered with another on camera speedlight.  I don't remember the power settings for most of these simply because once I nailed my exposure for the background, I simply dialed the flash power up or down until she looked good.  A funny side note, there were several folks around and when she took off her street clothes to just her leotard, she attracted quite a bit of attention... justifiably so.  A lady driving down the street even stopped to take her photo with her phone through her car window!

Now, since we were already in front of the theater, we thought why not take a chance and see if we can shoot inside.  In all honesty though, I did check with another photographer friend who has shot in there many times and according to him, you have to rent the facility for any photography projects done inside.  I also checked this out on their website and found the same information.  That being said, I couldn't be down there and not try... that's part of being a photographer right?  So we went on in and I threw out the absolute best manners I could muster and along with that it doesn't hurt to have the current Miss UofL with you as your model.  They gave us 15 minutes to shoot!

Now to say that this place inside is a cave, is a discredit to caves.  It was really dark in there, so I knew I would have to push the envelope on my ISO since I didn't have a tripod with me, to burn in as much of the ambient light as I could.  The inside of the Palace is just too cool to let it fester off in to darkness.  So after quickly dialing in an ambient only exposure (I ended up at ISO 1250 and a 1/30 sec shutter speed) I got a light set up in a shoot thru umbrella and we were off and running.  Incidentally, the reason I picked the shutter speed and ISO that I did is that I know I can safely hand hold a camera at 1/30 of a second shutter speed and still get a reasonably sharp photo, so I set that first, opened up my aperture as big as it would go, which was f/5.6 and cranked the ISO til the background showed as much detail as I wanted it to.  I knew the umbrella'd light would throw a little light around too helping me with my exposure.  After I got the ambient set, Amelia struck a pose and we started shooting.  If we had more time in there, I would have loved to park a few more accent lights around but we were lucky to be in there as it was, so I didn't push my luck. 

So our next stop down the road a bit was the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, another great iconic location in the city of Louisville.  Everyone from Al Capone to F. Scott Fitzgerald have graced its majestic rooms so this definitely had to be a location to shoot in.  As with the Palace, we were unsure if we could even get in there for a shoot, but since our luck held out for the first location, we thought we'd chance it and walk on in.  Lo and behold, the same approach worked again!!  I have to admit though, I suspect if Amelia hadn't been with us, I doubt my ugly mug would have done us any favors.  Interestingly enough though, they seemed pretty lenient about the idea except for one really cool room in the hotel which was currently waiting for a huge party to show up so we opted for the grand staircase right in the center of the reception area!  I used the same scenario here as I did in the Palace except that it wasn't quite as dark so I didn't need as high of an ISO and also, this time I didn't want my light spilling all over the place so instead of the shoot thru umbrella, I opted for the smaller, Lumiquest SBIII softbox.  I've used these softboxes a ton and I always have one with me.  To me, the light is kinda similar to a beauty dish but in a smaller, more compact form.

Amelia No. 4

Once I had my ambient exposure dialed in, Amelia started striking the poses and we shot away.  The light in this one was off to camera left and about 10 feet in the air.  I wanted this light up high enough to not be lighting Amelia from below her chin... didn't want any flashlight-under-the-chin-ghostly portraits.  Another fun thing about this location was that people were gathering around watching and more than willing to move out of the way so we could get the shot we were after.  It was really funny, but several folks that were walking in to the shot literally stopped and froze as if they had committed a cardinal sin!  Have to say, most folks in this town are pretty downright friendly!  This place looks empty except for Amelia working her magic on the stairwell, but in all actuality there were tons of people all around us!

This last portrait was, totally unplanned and a "happy accident", mostly impart to Amelia's perseverance to perform no matter the situation.  While we were walking to our next location, the sky opened up and started dumping Noah's flood on us... figures right?  Not wanting to get her wet, I herded us under a nearby awning and thought we could wait it out.  After sitting there wasting time for what seemed like forever (about 15 mins actually), Amelia decided, 'hey, lets shoot in the rain!'... God Bless her.  Ok, so how to do this.  Being the lighting guy that I am, I new I wanted to control the contrast in the scene as best I could but didn't particularly want to take a chance on getting my lights, or Amelia, soaking wet so the solution was to park a speedlight in one of my bigger umbrellas, a Photek Softlighter II actually, and have her hold it above her so that she would stay dry and still be lit.

Amelia No. 6 (Dancing in the Rain)

The trick to this (if you want to call it that) was to position the light in the umbrella so that it lit the front side of Amelia.  So I explained the situation to her, since she would be the one in fact holding the light, and she grasped the idea like a duck to water.  She simply held the umbrella so that the flash was in front of her.  I had no idea honestly what power setting to use, so I dialed in an ambient exposure that I thought would work and this time set the flash to TTL.  I generally like using manual power settings, but this time I thought I would let the camera and flash do the heavy lifting and it did a pretty darn good job with no compensation adjustments.  I normally shoot with the intention of converting to black and white later, but this photo just seemed to sing to me in black and white so I changed it after the fact.  I wasn't exactly happy with the background, but we were kinda in a situation where there wasn't anything to be done about that so we made the best of it, and honestly, its one of my favorite images of the shoot... even if its not perfect.  I have to give it to Amelia on this one though, her tenacity and skill made this shot imho.

Before I forget, the photo at the top of the post, was probably the most technically challenging, but still not that difficult.  You would think that I would have had to shoot in burst mode to capture that kind of action, but with Amelia's superior training and the flash's stopping power, it was all a matter of framing the scene and locking the focus.  I dialed in the exposure on how I wanted the background to look, which left Amelia in complete silhouette, then I lit her with one flash in a shoot thru umbrella from camera left for a test shot... and it was way underexposed.  I didn't want to max my flash power out at full power because of the slow recycle speed, so thankfully, I had a triflash bracket with me.  I mounted three Nikon SB-800s on the bracket, and put them back in the umbrella and took a test shot... which was more than enough power.  So the ambient exposure was good and the lighting was good, now all I had to do was sync myself with Amelia.  I had her stand where she would end up landing and locked my focus on that spot, then gave her a 1.. 2.. 3.. count and off she went!  At the peak of her jump was when I clicked the shutter, and she made this incredibly easy for every single shot, every single frame straight out of camera was a keeper.  I think we took about 5-6 shots here til we were happy with what we had and called it a day.

This was one of my favorite shoots to date, and Amelia and I both agreed to make this a continuing project until we have shot in front of or in, every place in Louisville we can get in to!  I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this shoot (even in the rain) and how much I look forward to the next one.  Amelia was simply amazing!!

Also, I have to give a very sincere thank you to an awesome photographer, Don Lehman, for helping me out with this shoot and lugging all of my heavy gear around, you were a huge help dude!!!

If you'd like to see a few more shots from this session, you can find those HERE.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Inspiration from Photography Giants!

Not getting to the blog like I wish I had time to, however that being said, I had to share this video.  Its a short clip on how to become successful in photography by some of the giants in the industry!  These guys were all instructors at the Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai and all have incredibly stunning and impressive histories in the business.

Regardless whether you are an aspiring amateur or a seasoned vet, I'm sure you can garnish some words of wisdom from these sages of photography.

Courtesy of the guys at FStoppers!


Friday, May 3, 2013

11 Tips on the Kentucky Derby!

The first Saturday in May is officially the Kentucky Derby and has been ever since 1875. The Derby is a one and a quarter mile race (2 km) by three-year-old thoroughbred horses, which takes place in Louisville Kentucky. It is also known as “The Run for the Roses” because the winning horse and jockey wins a handmade garland of roses, in addition to… oh, a 2 million U.S. dollar prize!

For us Kentuckians, it’s basically our Super Bowl. People travel from all over the world to celebrate, consuming delicious delectables and gambling their hearts away on “The Most Exciting 2 Minutes in Sports”.

Below is a list of tips that may help you breeze through your Derby Day like a seasoned pro. Here we go, in no particular order…

  1. If you want to sound like you’re a local, than perhaps no other single method will do so more effectively than learning how to pronounce the name of our city correctly, Louisville. Check out this informative video, rinse, wash and repeat.
  1. The official beverage of the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep. There are many different recipes for the Mint Julep, but the traditional way is to use a good quality bourbon (I prefer Woodford Reserve), a little sugar, water, cracked ice and fresh mint. A note on bourbon whiskey, if it wasn’t made in Kentucky, then it isn’t true bourbon whiskey… just ask any Kentuckian. ;)
  1. Kentucky is not particularly known for its high fashion, but during the Derby, Spring fashion is perhaps at its pinnacle. If you’re coming to the Derby, try to dress appropriately for the specific area of Churchill Downs you will be in. If you’re heading to the infield, then a tank top, cargo shorts and flip-flops will help you to blend in with the rest of the posh crowd. You’re probably going to either be rained on, puked on or have someone’s drink spilled on you so your Sunday best isn’t required. If you’re going to be anywhere else in the Downs, then make sure to don your best sundresses and seersucker suits in bold colors. Think southern gentile 1920’s and 30’s fashion and you will be right on the money. Most importantly, DO NOT FORGET THE HAT! Why? Because its tradition. Regardless if you’re in the infield or millionaire’s row, if you want to fit in, wear a hat. WEAR A HAT.
  1. The official dessert of the Kentucky Derby is Kern’s Derby Pie. Throwing a few chocolate chips in a pecan pie, isn’t a Derby Pie. It has to be Kern’s Derby Pie or it just ain’t a Derby Pie. The pie was created at the old Melrose Inn in Prospect Kentucky and has been a staple of the Derby ever since. Contrary to popular belief, it does go well with a mint julep (see number 2)
  1. Bring a camera. I know I’m a photographer and you’re probably expecting me to just throw that in because… well, just because. That’s not it, it’s the freaking Kentucky Derby for Pete’s sake, just bring the damn camera, you’ll be glad you did.
  1. Weather in the Ohio Valley area is unforecastable. Oh sure, some courageous weathermen around here try to put their finger on it like a toothless gypsy reading a crystal Orb, but in reality, only Mother Nature knows what will be served up as the dish of the day. That being said, it’s a good chance it’s going to rain that day, so be prepared.
  1. If you’re one of those people that have to go the bathroom frequently, then God Bless you but just don’t come to the Kentucky Derby. Getting in to the bathrooms can be a harrowing experience for the most seasoned vet. Long lines abound and the torrential odors that tickle your nose hairs can make a truck driver lose his lunch. It is seriously not a great experience, but if you go, and think you might even slightly have to use the bathroom, then go get in line at least 30 minutes prior to when you think you just can’t hold it any longer… and hopefully, you will make it. I won’t even get in to the port-a-potty details.
  1. A mudder. A mudder is not how some yankee from New York identifies his maternal parent (well, it might be). It’s a horse that runs well in the rain. The main track at Churchill Downs is a dirt track, and since the odds are fairly favorable that its going to rain (especially if you have a killer outfit), that track will literally become something akin to a mud run at a truck pull… another Southern sporting event. Pick a horse that you think can win, but also have one on the back burner that’s a good mudder… just in case.
  1. It’s ok to smoke at the Derby (uhh, that is, legal agriculture). It might not be acceptable to do this anywhere else in the country at this point, but it’s perfectly fine at the Derby as long as you’re outside.  Good cigars are the usual fare.  If some tobacco snob throws you a dirty look, haughtily stick your nose in the air and reply “outtatowner”, you’ll win on this day.

  1.  Betting on horses. Ahhh, what its all about really. You come to the Derby in your best fashions, enjoy a mint julep or two, post some photos to Instagram (see what I did there?) and partake in the largest party in the state, yet what it really comes down to is, does your horse win. Honestly, I have no tips on this other than to say, pay attention to the horse’s trainers. There are a few trainers that seem to consistently produce horse racing winners. They are (and this is just my opinion) D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert (dude looks like a Hollywood movie star 24/7) and Nick Zito. These guys seem to know what it takes to produce a winning horse so if you see a horse in the Derby that was trained by any of these guys, I’d say your chances of winning are pretty good. If it rains, and one of these guys has a mudder (see number 8) that they have trained, you’re certain to win, pick that one! As any realistic handicapper will tell you though, its all in the betting Gods that day as to who steps up and claims the garland of roses!
  1. Fun tip: 99% of Kentuckians do not actually attend the Kentucky Derby (we go to the Oaks). So what do Kentuckians do on Derby Day? We go to Derby parties, grill out and plant our vegetable gardens.

Good luck and hope your horse comes in! Happy Derby!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Peter Hurley Style Headshots with Speedlights


Its been a while since I've been in the blog-o-sphere.  It seems time isn't something that many of us have an abundance of these days.  With wrestling our day-to-day jobs, families, kids, side projects, pets and a menagerie of other things, it seems we have to push, fight and elbow our way in to a little free time.  So what do I do when I have some spare time on my hands?  I play with lights and blog about it lol.

I thought today I'd experiment and write about how Peter Hurley does his headshots on white.  Peter is an awesome photographer and does some really cool stuff, but what is really interesting to me is the crazy lighting setup he uses for portraits done on white seamless.  From what I can tell, he uses Kino Flos for these types of shots which are basically, constant light sources that are neutral, daylight balanced.  Kino Flos are used a lot in the motion picture industry but there are some photographers out there who like using them for still work as well.  I honestly prefer strobes though, and as many of you know, specifically I prefer using speedlights.  So, I thought I'd try to come up with a solution to mimic Peter's lighting style, while using small, portable flashes.  The Kinos are awesome, don't get me wrong, but after buying a set or two, I could have a nice vacation in some place warm and sunny.. on the beach, drinking little foo foo drinks with those cute, little multi-colored umbrellas in them... I digress.

So the most notable thing to me about Peter's portraits done with this style of lighting are, how they are frontally lit, with minimal shadows and those cool catch lights. After doing a little research, you can find out that he uses banks of lights in either a triangular or square shaped setup directly in front of his subjects and shoots right through the opening.  Also I've noticed that he uses a tripod so that he can more easily interact with his subjects while shooting (more on that in a bit).

I'm not a tripod user, or at least not very often, especially when shooting portraits, so putting that aside, in order to create the wrap of light, I used two Westcott Apollo Strip boxes, one on either side, and then two Lumiquest SBIIIs, one at the top and one at the bottom.  You can see what this setup looks like in the pic to the right (click on it for a larger view).  This seemed to work fairly well and gives a very unique looking catch light in the eyes.  As far as power settings go, I kept the top and bottom light in one group, and the left and right lights in another.  I can't tell you specific power settings because I adjusted them til I got the look I wanted.  Also, since the top flash (a Nikon SB-910) is a more powerful flash than the bottom (a Nikon SB-800), it appeared to be a bit more powerful at the same power setting however, I believe it was barely negligible.  All four of these flashes were triggered with my D300's on camera, pop-up flash using CLS but you could easily have done this with radio triggers and slave modes on any flash that has that feature.

After shooting a few shots, I realized that the background wasn't as white as I wanted (see the pic to the left), so I added a fifth flash (a Nikon SB-600) behind my subject, pointed at the background.  This gave me more of the look I was after.  However, without using that light, the background is a little closer to gray which actually has a nice look too and I believe Peter Hurley shoots both ways... with a solid white background and a gray one.

This is a pretty forgiving light setup and will make just about anyone look good.  After reviewing the photos I took though, I believe I like a slightly more powerful top light than bottom as I like that shadow to be more prevalent under the subject's chin.  This is totally subjective though.  Also, I noticed in some of Peter's portraits, the depth of field seems more shallow than at other times.  It could be that because he is shooting medium format that his portraits have more of a shallow depth of field than mine did, or it simply could be that he's using a larger aperture.  I adjusted my aperture based on how I had my lights set, but could have easily shot with a larger aperture to get a more shallow DOF, which is something I may experiment with later.

Could this have been done differently?  Yep, I'm sure it could have but there are always subtle differences to any light set up.  I thought about using a ring flash, and also, just a big, reflective umbrella directly behind me and the camera, but in the end, I went with a set up that I thought would most closely emulate Peter's.

Something I alluded to earlier in this post is that, what may be more important to the success of his headshots than his lighting technique is, is his rapport with his subjects.  I would have thought shooting behind that big bank of lights would shield him from his subjects (actually it does appear to), but by him shooting on a tripod, he is able to step away from the camera more easily which enables him to have good conversation and interaction with his subjects.  He seems to be able to bring out the best in anyone he shoots and walks them through a myriad of expressions and looks which, in the end, will almost always give a look he (and his subjects) is after.  So if I take anything away from his style and technique, its not only his lighting, but how well he directs and interacts with his subjects.

This was a fun experiment and I learned a lot from researching his work.  Take the time to check out Peter Hurley and see what you can learn!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Jay Maisel

Check out this incredibly inspiring video by one of the most talented photographers alive today, Jay Maisel.  Jay was a highly successful commercial photographer for over 40 years and now teaches workshops and is still a prolific shooter.

This video shares a bit of Jay's vision on why he still likes to shoot and what has motivated him over the years.  There is also a cool, quick cameo by another amazing photographer Gregory Heisler.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How To Do It: 101


This portrait I took the other day seemed to generate a little interest so I thought I would share a little bit more on how it was done.

First off, I have to say, the lighting on this was not my idea (wish it was).  There was a discussion going on in the Flickr Strobist group about how a certain portrait was lit.  This particular group is quite large and has a lot of talented photographers offering tips and info on various subjects related to lighting.  However, you can imagine, when someone posts in the group on how to light something, the number of responses you get can be staggering... and confusing.

Don't get me wrong, there is always more than one way to do something and sometimes, the methods used can produce finished images so strikingly similar that you would swear there was only one way to accomplish it.  That being said, lets get on to this portrait...

First let me say right off, that this portrait was a result of restricted lighting and, a slightly more heavy handed approach to editing than I normally do.  It wasn't by any means accomplished all in Photoshop, its just that I tend to not do heavy amounts of post work and prefer to get the finished image done in camera.  However, sometimes though its fun to take a slightly more artistic approach.

The portrait above was lit with two Nikon SB-800 speedlights in Westcott Apollo Strip boxes (which I dearly love) and another Nikon SB-800 with a full CTO gel on the background (although the power setting on the background light was so slow, that it hardly registers).  The original portrait in question was lit with a narrow column of light but another very telling sign on how that portrait was lit were the catch lights in the eyes.  Now I know the catch lights can be (and frequently are) done in post, but it seemed to me that these were left in intentionally and created by the light sources.  The catch lights were two vertical slits in each eye which created a really unusual look and I think, was part of the draw of the portrait.  Since the eyes are highly reflective, they will pretty much show any light source that they can see, which is a good method for figuring out how a portrait is lit.

So to get this look, the first thing I did was to dial in an exposure setting that would render the scene completely black.  The only light I wanted in this image was the light provided by my flashes so my exposure ended up being f/5.6 at 1/200 sec ISO 200.  This gave me a completely black frame in my small, home studio.

Then I set up my strip boxes in front of Lexi facing each other and took a test shot (you can see the setup image to the right... click on it for a larger view).  The amount of power I had dialed in was right, but the light seemed to be lighting the sides of her face as well as the front which is not the look I was after.  So, I moved the strip boxes closer to the camera, and then feathered them back towards the camera slightly and took another test shot.  This gave me more of the effect that I was looking for, so now I turned my background light on.  I only wanted a faint glimmer of light on the background to add just a slight bit of separation around her neck and shoulders, and thought I had achieved this, but after realizing that my monitor needed calibrating, it hardly registers on most monitors and learn.

I took a few more shots to make sure I had one that I was happy with and also tried moving the lights around a few more times just to see how many different looks I could create.  I tend to not give up on an image right away and sometimes will shoot it to death just to see what turns out... ahhhh, thank goodness for digital!!  By doing this, sometimes I come up with an image I like better than what I was originally going for, or learn a new trick in the process.  Also, another tip about these strip boxes, they have a very recessed edge to them, so by moving them around, even slightly, will cause the highlights and shadows to shift significantly.

In the end, I picked a photo that I was relatively pleased with and knew that with just a little bit of simple editing, I could get the look I was after.  You can see this image to the left, it is straight out of camera except for rotating and resizing for the web.

So the first thing I did in post was to remove any blemishes and to clean up the skin.  (I think I may have done a slight curves adjustment as well).  Lexi has pretty good skin to begin with, but like all kids, sometimes has a slight imperfection or two, hell... I still fight acne!  After the basic skin retouching, I worked on her eyes a bit to bring out the whites and darks, I simply used the dodge and burn tools to do this.  The last thing I did was to increase the shadow detail by simply making a few swipes with the burn tool.  I am by no means a Photoshop guru so I'm sure there may be more effective methods or programs to create the same looks, this is just how I chose to do it.  I hear there's a program out there called Lightroom that it is pretty nifty. ;)  For the shadows, I simply took the burn tool and anywhere there was an already existing shadow, I just added to it or 'accentuated' it, trying to make it a bit more dramatic.  Also, I decided to go in and do a very slight skin smoothing which I did with a layer mask and gaussian blur.  Again, there's probably a better way, but this just how I know to do it.

So that's pretty much it, minus the cropping to make the portrait a tad more dramatic.  Also, it should probably be noted that every single adjustment I did in post was done on its own layer, so that way, if I decided I needed to change something or omit it altogether, I could easily do so without effecting the rest of the work.

It may seem like a lengthy process but really, the shoot itself took me about 10 minutes and the editing took about 10 minutes or less.  This was a fun project and I'll definitely keep this technique in my back pocket for future reference.

If anyone has any questions about his, just sound off in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Links: Getting your Inspiration On!

Its been a while since I've made a post of just links.  It seems there are tons of interesting articles and "how-to's" on the net these days regarding photography, but over the last few days I've seen a few that really made me think so I thought I'd share these...

In no particular order, here we go!

You can't be a photographer and not recognize the authority and quality of work National Geographic has produced in photographic terms over the years.  To see the Best of 2012 from NG, check out the vid below...

This link is to a gallery of photos taken by William Strode for an environmental look around the Ohio River near Louisville Kentucky in the 70s.  Strode was a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who had clients such as National Geographic, Time, Life, Sports Illustrated and many others.  I think what's interesting in these photos, is his compositional skill, not to mention the 70s film quality.

This next link is a gallery of photos taken by photographer Brandon Stanton.  Its a series of street photography (mostly portraits) in various locations in Iran.  I think its really interesting in looking that the folks in these photos don't seem any different than our own neighbors and what's really cool, is how nicely everyone treated the photographer while he was there.  Cool stuff!

Regardless whether or not you're a fan of the current U.S. administration, you have to appreciate the skill and candidness photographer Pete Souza (the official White House Photographer) brings to the table.  His eye for composition is probably second to none and he has recorded the life of a presidency perhaps better than any other photographer before him.  I also think that this is in part due to President Obama's willingness to have a staff photographer around at all times, even those that are less than flattering.  Check out this gallery of Pete's personal favorites from 2012.  Also, if you're a Souza fan, check out this documentary about him done by PBS.  Its a great look at what a White House photographer goes through on a daily basis.

Next, check out this quick piece about Edwin Land, the genius behind the success of Polaroid.  Land was a scientist, inventor and a voracious business man that really struggled to put Polaroid on the map.  Its interesting to see what makes men like this tick.  If you're wanting to know more, check out this latest book by Christopher Bonanos.  Its a good look at the man behind the power of Polaroid cameras.

Last but not least, another cool book to add to the shelf is "Camera:  A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital".  This book takes a look at the history of photography from the camera perspective.  If you're a photographer and a history buff, this book will curl your toes!  Many of the cameras in the book (if not all) are from the George Eastman House collection and really give a cool insight in to the progression of the modern camera.  I just picked this book up, and so far I totally love it!

Hope you enjoy this stuff and gives you some inspiration for a lazy, Sunday afternoon!