Archive for March 2009

Travel photography

March 26th, 2009 — 10:05am

I spent last week in Rome with the family.   While the purpose of the trip was not to create images, it was a good opportunity for me to be a travel photographer and develop some of the skills needed to capture the essence of places, which is different but related to capturing the essence of people.

I was very inspired by a travel photography book I read before I left, “Spirit of Place” by Bob Krist.  A couple of ideas stayed with me from Bob’s book:

  • One is the idea that the spirit of the place has to shine thru the images.  It can be so subjective and “personal” that others see the photographer and not the place itself.  The photographer’s vision is the channel that root the images on “the thing itself”
  • The distinction between being a “traveler” and a “sightseer” - the traveler seeks engagements with the local people and picture, while the sightseer just clicks off sights in the guidebook.  A sightseer “steals” pictures from the distance while the traveler gets close and personal and the resulting pictures are more intimate.
  • Clutter spoils more pictures than any other compositional flaw.  Bob talks about keeping it simple, thinking of the frame as containing only what’s essential to tell the story or create a feeling - remove everything else until removing more hurts the image.  This cannot be done out of conscious decision-making processes, it has to be done out of intuition built on experience.  So the only way to get there is the old, hard way, by doing it over, and over and over, until it’s built into the photographer’s intuitive intelligence.

I am attaching a few pictures from Rome here.

Comment » | Life

Courtney - a male portrait

March 16th, 2009 — 1:28pm

On Friday I photographed a handsome young man, Courtney, at my home studio.  We spent about one hour together, and captured three or four different looks.  The background was my large 4×8 ft. “book” make with two foam core boards, taped along the long edge.  By using this device as a background I can quickly go from high- to low-key, and also use any gray  in between, depending on how much light I let fall on it.  The example below is a classic low key portrait, using the black side of the book.  I give some details about the lighting below.

Technical data: Nikon D700 with 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens at 200mm on tripod. f/10 at 1/250 manual mode, ISO 200. Background was a 4×8 black foam core board standing up. Lighting consisted of 4 lights:

  • Large Photoflex softbox to camera right, about 2 feet from the subject
  • White foam core board on camera left, about 1 foot from the subject. This fill gave me a ratio of 1:2 with respect to the key light.
  • Hairlight was a 7in reflector with a 20 degree grid on it, to camera left and about 3 feet above the subject. Ratio for the hair light was 2:1
  • Background light was a 10 degree grid on a regular 7 in. reflector

Comment » | Uncategorized

My daughter in natural light

March 16th, 2009 — 1:13pm

Continuing with the photographic quest for pics of my children, I caught my daughter in good mood today and asked to go the master bathroom, which is the only room in the case with a north-facing window. I placed 2 white foam core boards up, one behind her against the wall, to cover the wall paper, and another to camera left to server as fill light. The main light was a large window above the bath tub. I got inside the bathtub and asked to pose for me… making her laugh with fart jokes. After a few frames I captured this delightful portrait of her.

Technical data: Nikon D700, 35-70mm f/2.8 at f/3.2, 1/200 s, ISO 200, postprocessing with Capture NX2 and Photoshop CS3.

Comment » | Family

Using ambient light

March 12th, 2009 — 9:02am

I was asked at a photography forum how to choose and use ambient light for photography - how to make good images with the light that exists on location.  One thing to keep in mind is that “ambient light” and “light control” are not incompatible. As a photographer you can be reactive and use the light as you find it, which is easy, or be proactive and use ambient as the raw material, but not the finished light for your photographs. On the images above I use some light as I found it, and I also controlled it, see below.

  • Natural light can be colored, just like flash light when it’s reflected by a non-white surface - so that’s the first thing to worry about. If the enviroronment is reflecting colored light, getting the white balance right is going to be critical. I always use a gray card as a reference.
  • Northern light has a very beautiful quality - so pay attention to the orientation of the window you’re using, and pick northern light if you can.
  • It’s important to understand the relationship between the value of the background and that of your main subject. By value I mean the brightness. If you place a diffusor between the subject and the source of illumination, you’ll have a subject with a lower value than the background, which means that when you adjust the exposure to be correct on the subject, the background will be lighter. This is great for high key portraits, but not so good if you’re looking for a low key mood. The opposite is true is you use a reflector to raise the value of the subject but not the background.
  • Flat natural light can be a problem - while diffused light will be better than high noon, it can also produce blueish, dead skin tone. There is also the issue of not having hair highlights with flat lighting. There are two solutions to these problems. First, get the white balance right by using a gray card. Second, you can pump some light onto the hair using a mirror. You can even diffuse mirror light usng a diffusor like a light panel. And of course sometimes it’s best to mix ambient and flash. For example if you cannot reflect sunlight on the hair, you can use a portable flash.
  • You have to be aware of a sensor’s ability to capture a range of values, or its dynamic range. Ambient light make look good to your eyes, but the dynamic range of most cameras will not be more than 6 f-stops, which means that you’ll get blown out highlights or really dark areas, depending on how you expose, if the dynamic range is greater than a few f-stops. The solution is to use a long lens if you can to reduce the amount of ambient in the background, or supplement ambient with flash.
  • Most of what I know about controlling light I have learned thru Dean Collins’s teachings. There are some really good DVDs out there if you’re really interested.
  • Ultimately light control is the same whether the light is ambient or created. The tools can be the same, and the ideas are the same. There is no reason why you can’t use butterfly lighting, short lighting, or Rembrandt lighting with natural light. You need to train yourself to see the right as the digital sensor sees it. So a good approach is to use ambient light, but control it as you would studio light. Sometimes you get light and you don’t need to control it.

Edit: I forgot, sometimes I use a 1/4 or 1/2 CTO gel on a portable flash used for fill outdoors. This allows me to compensate for blue color casts under trees, and produces a warm, healthy skin tone. I posted an example of that here.

Edit 2: The three first images would have benefited from using a small, portable plastic mirrr bouncing window light back on her hair. I had someone there that could have held the mirror in place for me. Oh well, I will remember it next time. I keep a log of all my mistakes, and I am very proud of them :-)

One more thing about using ambient light combined with flash - it’s important to decide which is the key light, and which is fill. Then set the exposure for the key light, and set the intensity of fill to be less than the key. Here are a couple of examples.

Case 1 - Sun is key light, flash is fill. This is the most common case in bright days - rely on the camera/flash built-in fill flash capabilities, or do it manually. The advantage of using an advanced flash system like Nikon’s CLS is that you can increase the shutter speed to control depth of field with an open aperture. If you want to do this manually, measure ambient light to decide how bright you want the background, and then measure again with the fill flash set to manual, and set the exposure accordingly. For example.

Ambient light measures at f/16 and 1/125, typical of a sunny day.
Set the flash to 1/2 power for example, and place it close to the subject - let’s assume you get f/16, combined exposure of flash and ambient.
If you want the background to be less dominant, change the shutter speed to 1/250 to darken it, and keep the aperture at f/16.

It’s a good idea to place a warming gel on the flash to achieve more natural skin tones, especially if the day is cloudy or you’r shooting under trees. Note also that if you’re shooting manually, you can’t go over the maximum sync speed provided by your camera/flash, normally 1/250, so apertures are going to be small and you can’t really control the depth of field unless you use neutral density filters.

Case 2-Flash is key, ambient is fill. This case is a bit different, as the flash will produce most of the illumination on the subject, and ambient will illuminate the background. The aperture controls the amount of light falling on the subject, and the shutter speed controls the exposure on the background. Again, you can rely on automatic camera/flash controls, or you can do it manually. For manual operation, measure the ambient first to get an idea of what shutter speed you need, for a certain aperture. Then set the flash to give you that same aperture. For example:

Ambient measures f/5.6 and 1/30 - say a restaurant.
Set the flash to 1/2 power and measure exposure, let’s say it’s f/8. You want shallow DoF, so lower the flash power to 1/4 to get an exposure of f/5.6, then set the shutter speed to 1/30 to capture ambient light.

Case 3 - overpowering the sun. This is the technique where your flash is main, and the sun is fill, but the sun is very bright, brighter than the light produced by a small flash. For example f/16 and 1/125 sunlight, and you want to underexpose by two f-stops, for a dramatic dark blue sky. This means that you need to shoot at f/32 1/125 or f/22 1/250. Let’ say you want three f-stop underexposure on the sun, so you’ll need to shoot at f/32 and 1/250. Now you’ll have to illuminate your main subject with enough flash power to produce f/32 light. This is a lot of light, and you probably need 1000 watt-sec or more, depending on how close the flash is, what light modifiers you use, etc. While you may want to rely on Nikon CLS to do this, remember that the intensity of the flash at 1/2000 is really not that much, but you may be able to do it if the flash is very close to the subject and the aperture quite open.

That’s is, no more technical stuff for a while!

Comment » | Technical

Photographers that give back

March 11th, 2009 — 11:19am

I am a strong believer in sharing knowledge with colleages.  Some photographers may have good reasons to be very protective of the techniques and approaches they use, but I really appreciate it when good photographers share freely.  And I like to do the same, to the extent I can.

Two photographers that share what they know and have something valuable to teach are David Tejada from Denver and Zach Arias from Atlanta. 

David Tejada is a corporate photographer that uses small flashes to create some really amazing images.  I have learned quite a bit from him, including equipment to carry on location, and how to use small flashes for great results.   Check out his videos on YouTube.

Zach Arias is funny, smart and a great teacher.   I’ve learned from him how to shoot against a white background with minum postprocessing.  Zach had developed a pretty good DVD with his teachings, and he also have tutorials and videos on his website.

Thank you guys for sharing what you know and enbling other photographers!

Comment » | Technical

Equipment when I travel for fun

March 11th, 2009 — 10:45am

Next week, on March 17th, my family and I are flying to Rome, Italy for Spring break. We’re all excited about this - Stella and the kids have never been there, and I was there only once when I was 20 or so, traveling solo. I loved Rome and want to see it again.

So the question is, what equipment should I take with me on the trip, given that this is a family vacation and not a photography project? So I need to ask myself two questions: (1) what do I plan to photograph? and (2) what are my equipment requirements for that type of photography?

I plan to photograph life in Rome. I am not too interested in typical postcard images with the Colloseum at dusk, but I want to capture the essence of living in Rome - the people, the streets, the experience. I want to be able to show someone what it feels like to be there, not just what the place looks like. This is not easy when I am not traveling alone and focused on my photography.

So what equipment requirements does this type of photography places on me, in addition to the constraints of traveling with two small children? Here is my list:

  • I need to travel light, with as little weight as possible
  • I want to be non-instrusive, so big cameras and lenses are not the ticket
  • I want to be able to use available light to really capture the feel of being there.  This means no flash and fast lenses.
  • I want to avoid being mugged and my camera stolen
  • I want outstanding images

So here is my plan:

  • The camera will be a single body, the D700.  I am not planning to take a backup body, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.   The body will have no MB-20, I will just carry extra batteries.
  • I plan to take three prime lenses, two small and a larger one:  Nikkor 20mm f/2.8,  50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.4. 
  • I will take a Sekonic L358 flash meter
  • All this equipment will go into two cases:  a tiny Domke F5XB  black bag, with the Domke label removed, and a Thinktank Lens Changer 25 for my 85mm.  The Domke is really tiny and enough for the body with the 20mm lens on it and the 50mm inside.   Here are pics of the two bags.


Comment » | Technical

Love after a bath

March 11th, 2009 — 10:22am
I’ve been chasing my kids lately to create interesting images of them, as they pretty much refuse to pose voluntarily for me, even when I offer them toys as compensation! So what I do is I wait until they are doing something interesting, then I try to influence their pose a little to achieve the idea I have in mind, and take lots of frames, with the hope that I get one frame worth keeping amd sharing.

My kids had just taken a bath and I was there with my camera and my portable softbox on a stand. So they are getting dry and I see an opportunity to get an image of them together under the same towel. I ask them to sit together and I put a white towel over them. What I didn’t anticipate, but I loved, was my son’s expression and my daughter’s resting her head on him for just a moment. I had sunlight coming from the back, but wasn’t enough, so I had placed the lightstand inside the bath tub, still half full of water, to camera right, to create the blown highlight effect on Pablo’s left side (camera right) - setting the camera to wide open create the story more effectively than if I had it at f/8.

So in this case, instead of the old saying that photojournalists created, “f/8 and be there”, with my kids now I say “f/2 and be there with toy promises”

Comment » | Family

Session with Gracel

March 9th, 2009 — 1:29pm

On Sunday March 8th I spent a couple of hours photographing Gracel, a lovely young woman, around the Mockingbird train station in Dallas.   This are has a nice movie theater, the Angelica, and also shops and coffee shops.  I think we did around ten different ideas, some lifestyle for me, and some more beauty/fashion for the model.   I used the Nikon D700 and a 85mm f/1.4 lens for all the images - I also used a collapsible reflector for a couple of looks, but for the most part I used open shade areas and played with the edge of light.  I also use natural light coming from large windows at the theater.   The D700 with the 85mm is a great combination for lifestyle images, but the white balance is not always accurate.  I used a gray card and reset the white balance in post.  Here is an image from the session.

Comment » | Photo Sessions

Juggling with eyes closed!

March 9th, 2009 — 1:13pm

This weekend I had fun creating images with my children.   I want to share a couple here.   The first one is an image of Pablo that shows hhim juggling three balls with his eyes closed! I don’t know of many seven-year-olds that can do that, and of course, he’s not one of them - but by the magic of photography post-processing, we created this image by combining four different frames, one with him having his eye closed and no balls in the air, and three other frames with only one ball in the air.  So all three balls on this picture are actually just one ball at different times.  

The second image was of my two kids in my bed, one with my laptop and the other with my wife’s. They were playing a game of virtual bowling over the internet, and my daughter needed some help, so my son answered her questions. Lighting here is a single SB800 flash on the bed to my daughter’s left. I had the diffusor on it and a blue gel, but that obviously doesn’t matter for B&W - the original color image has a blue cast on their faces to emulate glow from the computer. I was a bit lazy to go set up two SB800s with snoots on them to do a better job with the emulation, so I used only one without a snoot.

Technical data: D700, 85 mm f/1.4 at 1/60, f/5.6, flash triggered with the built-in flash set to “–”, group A was a single SB800 set to TTL -0.7EV. Postprocessing with NX2 and Photoshop, B&W conversion using Photoshop B&W conversion layer, sharpening done with a High Pass layer.  I am starting to gain some respect for Nikon’s CLS - for this image I didn’t have to mess with flash meters, pocket wizards or anything else. I controlled the intensity of the flash from the camera using EV values. Pretty cool when I feel lazy and still want to do something interesting.

Comment » | Family


March 9th, 2009 — 12:59pm

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