Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bah Humbug (A Strobist's Christmas)

Click for larger view and more info
Even though more likely to celebrate Isaac Newton's birthday or the recent winter solstice (notice the magazine cover?) than anything around the end of December, I still loves me some Christmas gifts. Here, I'm pretending to read the June 2008 issue of National Geographic for a test of my new Honl 1/8 Speed Grid.

I have to say - grids are really useful - I wish I had used them more in the past. It's really something how much control the grid gives you over a snoot or zoomed-in bare flash.

So, enough about that, here's how I shot this... And, if you're not a strobist, and you're thinking "big deal, there's nothing special about this shot!", go try it out for yourself, then come back to finish this post :)

There's a few things I had to consider here. First, I really love the yellow light that the corner lamp produces. I'm big on tungsten. So, I started by testing what the ambient light gave me. It was clear that if I wanted to see any of the Christmas tree lights, I had to take a long enough shot that the lamp greatly overexposed the whole back corner of the room as well as the right side of my face. That was a big shame - I really wanted both the tungsten lamp and Christmas tree lights together. So I setup a fill flash and turned off the lamp. That seemed to do the trick, but the scene didn't look right.

Click for larger view and more infoThe solution? Either quickly unplug the lamp after a split second, or... fake out the lamp with a flash. I chose the latter :)

Why? The flashes release all of their light almost instantaneously, but ambient/constant light needs time to burn in. If I remove all ambient light from the scene except for the Christmas tree lights, I can control the ratio of tree lights to the rest of the scene with my shutter speed. The flashes only need the first 1/250 of a second to burn in. After that, I'm controlling the brightness of the tree lights alone.

Okay, so... I removed the bulb and attached a Nikon SB-26 flash with a Light Sphere Cloud on it to the lamp, underneath the lampshade, zoomed at 50mm. This was easy enough with small bungee cords. I used a 1/2 CTO gel on the flash to give it some tungsten color. The SB-26 has an optical slave mode to it, which means that when it sees a flash, it quickly fires off its own flash, so I didn't need to use one of my Pocket Wizards on this flash. I'd let my wide-angled fill light trigger it.

I set this "lamp flash" at 1/32 power. This was now the most awkward flash to get to, so I used this as the baseline. The rest of the scene was to be setup using the lamp flash at 1/32 power, 1/2 CTO. After firing off a couple of test shots, I found that this was perfect for ISO 500, f/5.

And now for the fill flash. There's not much to this - I just used a Canon 430EX flash on a light stand at 1/32 power, 35mm zoom, and again with a 1/2 CTO gel on it, behind and camera right. I used a Pocket Wizard to trigger this flash, which then triggered the lamp flash with its optical slave feature.

This was fine and all, but I wanted to make sure that the magazine and I stood out a little. As it was, I just blended into the background. So, to highlight the magazine and me, I set up another light stand above and camera left with a Nikon SB-28, this time 1/8 CTO, triggered by Pocket Wizard. To focus the light on the magazine and me, I used a Honl 1/8 Grid and zoomed the flash to 85mm, using 1/64 power. This produced a very tight flashlight-type light on me. It was perfect. The first attempt left a dark shadow behind my head on the couch, so I raised the light up by the ceiling. This seemed to do the trick.

There were a few small adjustments made to the two light stand flashes to get things just right. I would adjust the power if I was way off, and move the light stands closer or further away for minor adjustments.

All that was left was the tree lights - this was the easiest part. I tried several shutter speeds, and settled on 0.8 seconds. It was somewhat important for me to stay still during it, but remember, I'm almost entirely lit by the strobes, and then basically left in the dark. So, it wasn't likely that there'd be any ghosting in the shot. I used a remote trigger and my Canon 40D's 10 second timer to take each shot. One thing I found funny about this was that each time I'd go back to the camera to chimp, the static electricity I built up would trigger my flashes.

Now that you know how this was shot, it seems obvious that it's not natural. Look how bright the Christmas tree lights are compared to the lamp. Can you imagine what that would look like?

Here's a shot of the setup - click it to see each piece of equipment used.

Happy shooting!

Note: If you're interested, here is a great read on how Ken Geiger shot Stonehenge for the cover of that National Geographic.

* Canon 40D, 17-55mm lens.
* Bogen/Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod with 322RC Ballhead
* Light stands: Bogen/Manfrotto 7 foot pro stand and 9 foot basic stand
* Flashes: Nikon SB-28 and SB-26, Canon 430EX
* Light modifiers: Gary Fong Light Sphere Cloud II and Honl 1/8 Grid.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Are Amateurs Putting the Pros Out of Business?

Yes. Deal with it, it'll make you a better photographer.

One one hand, it's sad that the amateurs are taking a lot of the pros' business, but don't the people that go to amateurs seem happy enough with what they're getting?  Professional photos are usually going to be much better, but isn't it a good thing that there's a market now for people that want a good-enough looking photo? Yes, a crappy DSLR shot and Walmart print is good enough for most people.

Don't complain about it, deal with it. Many - if not most - people are happy enough with imperfect and cheap holiday portraits. Decent family portraits and wedding candids are worth less than they used to be. I think the talented photographers will be survive.

Fighting it it useless - be open to the change and ready to take it on. Yes, there's going to be a lot less family portraits to shoot, since everyone has their own DSLR now, but why fight it? How about those portrait photographers get out and do something new and different?

Boring photography is being infiltrated by amateurs - embrace it.

If you're a professional photographer who is upset about this -- really fired up that your portrait business is drying up because people are buying DSLRs... then maybe it's time you reevaluate what you're doing.

Branch out, take more creative photos... Let the amateurs make you better. Employ some creative off-camera lighting that the amateurs aren't going to attempt anytime soon. Take photos that they can't, or don't know how to. Hold seminars where you take all of these amateurs, and teach them what else is on their dial besides "P" mode.

This new era is a good thing. If you're a photographer and care about your craft, then this will make you better. If this sinks your business, then there's a chance that your heart wasn't in it to begin with.

With all of that said, and in full disclosure (:)), I'm an overly enthusiastic amateur photographer that occasionally takes portraits for friends and family - when I find the time between reading photography blog posts, watching off-camera lighting seminar DVDs, and taking part in the Flickr community.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Making Your Xmas Tree Interesting - Part I, Circular Bokeh

So, it's freezing out, you're stuck inside, and itching to take a shot.  How about pointing the camera at your xmas tree?

I was just that bored the other night, so, I opened the aperture on my 50mm f/1.4 all the way, then focused as close as the lens would allow, then snapped a couple shots of our tree.  I got plenty of really pretty, colorful circles.  It was nice, but I wanted to mix things up just a little bit.  So, I started holding objects in front of the lens, hoping to change the shapes of the bokeh.  In this shot here, it was just a single finger.  I'm sure I don't understand the optics of why a finger turns up in every bokeh, but it does, so have fun with it!

Of course, throw in some contrast and color during post-processing, and you're set.  You've got something that might just make people wonder what they're looking at.

Using the widest aperture will give you the circular bokeh that we're looking for here.  At this widest aperture, the aperture blades aren't in use.  As soon as you stop down even 1/3 of a stop, they'll come into play, giving you octagonal, heptagonal,  hexagonal, or pentagonal, depending on whether you have 8, 7, 6, or 5 blades in your aperture.

And this time of year, there's lights up everywhere!  Take your telephoto out with you when you're driving around at night (just be careful!).  Shoot your neighbors' outdoor decorations completely out of focus.  Remember, for the cleanest circles, you're going to need to use the widest aperture your lens has (the smallest number).   

I'd love to see your shots - please post them to the F-Stopping Flickr Group, and tag your shots with:


View everyone's tagged photos here.

Happy shooting!!