Category Archives: Lighting

The New Chordettes in the Studio, 4.5 Years Later

My own comfort and confidence behind the camera influenced their comfort and confidence in front of the camera.

My own comfort and confidence behind the camera influenced their comfort and confidence in front of the camera.

Four and one half years ago, I photographed The New Chordates in my home studio. I was somewhat new to studio lighting at the time, but the results were pretty good and even graced two CD covers.

Last month I got a do-over, and I’m pleased to see that I learned something about lighting and posing over the last few years. Of course, it never hurts to have a group of beautiful women posing for you…

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Although I struggled to separate dark hair from the dark background, overall I was very happy with this session’s lighting. I used two tools unavailable to me in 2011: the Photek Softlighter II and the Orbis Ringflash. With the SB-800-powered ring flash around the Nikon 24-70 and the SB-600-powered Softlighter II at camera-left, I added an umbrella-ed SB-600 from high camera-right as a little bit of hair light. I like the overall look (although I would have preferred a stronger, tighter hair light), and best of all, the broad soft light provided by these tools allowed me to do very little retouching to the images. So nice to have evidence of progress in my work!

New Chordettes-3863 New Chordettes-3884 New Chordettes-3850 New Chordettes-3799

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First Orbis Experiment

The Orbis ring light adapter swallows an SB800 flash and spits out soft, even light.

The Orbis ring light adapter swallows an SB800 flash and spits out soft, even light. Your lens goes in the bagel breach (New York equivalent of a doughnut hole), so the light is on-axis and comes from all around.

Okay, experiment is a generous word for what I did, because “experiment” connotes careful documentation of processes, whereas I just tried some different things and then couldn’t tell which was which by the time I got the images onto a computer.

But it still worked out pretty dang well.

I’d read about the Orbis ring light device before, over at Strobist, so when one became available at a significant discount, I snapped it up.

I tried it on a couple of hasty macro shots, and marveled at its potential.

The ringlight will become very useful for macro photography if I ever calm down and use a freakin' tripod.

The ringlight will become very useful for macro photography if I ever calm down and use a freakin’ tripod.

But I like to photograph people (which is ironic, considering how effectively I avoid contact with other people), so I asked author Jennifer Brown to help me test three basic uses of the Orbis: 1) as fill light in a multi-light setup, 2) as key light on lens, and 3) as “soft box” off lens. First, let’s look at my extravagant studio space:

Fancy schmancy. That's a Photek Softlighter II at left, powered by a Nikon SB600. Standard black muslin backdrop, the Orbis unit on the table, and barely visible at right, an SB600 fitted with a blue filter and a grid.

Fancy schmancy. That’s a Photek Softlighter II at left, powered by a Nikon SB600. Standard black muslin backdrop, the Orbis unit on the table, and barely visible at right, an SB600 fitted with a blue filter and a grid. Gaffer’s tape, like wine, holds everything together.

You cannot see the gel behind the grid, but this is the SB600 I used as an accent light on the background. Aimed at the background, it produces the blue light behind Jennifer in the final images below.

You cannot see the gel behind the grid, but this is the SB600 I used as an accent light. Aimed at the background, it produces the blue light behind Jennifer in the final images below.

Here is a shot with the Orbis as fill, and I believe I should have turned it down, because it either overwhelms or blends with the Softlighter II at camera left. I like the catchlights, and I see great potential for this device as on-axis fill in a multi-flash scenario. Also, I dig the accent light.

Here is a multi-flash shot with the Orbis as fill, but I should have turned its power down, because it either overwhelms or blends with the Softlighter II at camera left. I like the catchlights, and I see great potential for this device as on-axis fill in a multi-flash scenario. Also, I dig the accent light. But I wanted to test my ability to create short-lighting using the Orbis as fill, and failed to do so here. As the old saying goes, we never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over…

Here we have only the Orbis (wrapped around the lens) and the accent light. This image is very encouraging, because it looks like I can use the ring flash for quick, softly lit head shots.

Here we have only the Orbis (wrapped around the lens) and the accent light. This image is very encouraging, because it looks like I can use the ring flash alone for quick, softly lit head shots.

Now this is interesting. In a feat that pushed my lack of manual dexterity to its limit, I held the flash/Orbis above and to the left of the camera. Using the rear focus button on a D610 while holding the camera in portrait orientation with one hand was truly an expensive accident waiting to happen, but we got a couple of shots before I was shaking too much to continue. Note that the Orbis has become an off-axis soft box, producing shadows that add depth to the image. Very encouraging, but I've got to work on my upper body strength (or break down and start using a tripod).

Now this is interesting. In a feat that pushed my lack of manual dexterity to its limit, I held the flash/Orbis above and to the left of the camera. Using the rear focus button on a D610 while holding the camera in portrait orientation with one hand was truly an expensive accident waiting to happen, but we got a couple of shots before I was shaking too much to continue. Note that the Orbis has become an off-axis soft box, producing semi-soft shadows that add depth to the image. Very encouraging, but I’ve got to work on my upper body strength (or break down and start using a tripod).

Jennifer and I conducted this test in about fifteen minutes so I could get a basic understanding of the Orbis unit, and I’m very excited about incorporating this into my work. Most of all, I’m eager to get the unit out on location where I’ll have to adapt to light I cannot control.

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Raising My Standards Means Actually Applying What I Know

My favorite image - of 2,700!

My favorite image – of 2,700!

So here’s the thing: As much as I enjoy being a lazy, disorganized, impatient photographer, I may have to compromise my principles to make uncompromising photographs. That is to say, I may have to become less lazy, more organized, and patient. Maybe. When I started reviewing thousands of images to build a portfolio, I realized that most of my work does not live up to the criteria I would use to judge another’s photos. I must demand excellence from myself in composition, lighting, and moment.  And under these standards, two out of three AIN’T GOOD. Instead of building a portfolio, I built a much bigger reject bin.

And this is great news, because now editing is EASY! If an image doesn’t meet all three criteria, out it goes, and I don’t spend hours in post trying to make bad pictures look good. This does not apply to event documentation, where I sometimes have to share mediocre pictures that are good records. But otherwise, it’s hammer time, and that means that forty-plus years in, I need to get a little more serious about learning photography.

And I have a lot of lessons from this weekend, when I shot 2,700 frames at a dance concert. In future posts, I’m going to write about my travails related to dynamic range, pixel density, focus performance, and a host of gear-related challenges and solutions, but today I want to talk about the simplest way to improve our photos – simple but not always easy. And you’ve heard it a thousand times before: Get closer.

Here is one of my favorite dance images, which I made at a Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) rehearsal in 2010:

What makes this image different from most of my dance images? Actually, it's not "what," it's "where."

What makes this image different from most of my dance images? Actually, it’s not “what,” it’s “where.”

And here is a “good enough” document from this weekend that doesn’t meet my criteria as a photograph:

My old nemesis, compression.

My old nemesis: Compression.

Long focal lengths and distance to subject produce a compression effect. A 200mm lens, used from the very back of the theater, compresses foreground and background, making the image look less three-dimensional.  That can be a great effect for a lot of subjects, but with multiple dancers on stage, I’d prefer a sense of depth. For the SBCC image, where you can clearly feel the distance between the dancers, I was seated in the front row – at stage level – using a 17-55 f/2.8 lens. Note that we’re not talking about depth of field here, because the dancers in the background appear pretty sharp, but you still get a sense of depth.

There is no question in my mind that I make better dance photos when I am closer to the stage, but it simply isn’t possible most of the time, since audiences don’t like someone standing in front of them, clicking incessently. Knowing this, I look for opportunities like the image at the top of this post, where compression does not appear to distort the image, but probably helps it.

Next time, I’ll explore how I somehow managed to increase both my keeper rate and my frustration during this weekend’s dance concerts. It was all worth it.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Composition, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Professional vs. Amateur

Honoring Access with Restraint

Ms. Gloria Steinem, speaking at the Orfalea Foundation Downtown Center on February 13, 2014

Ms. Gloria Steinem, radiating optimism and radicalism in equal measure at the Orfalea Foundation Downtown Center on February 13, 2014

In the eyes of the IRS, I’m a professional photographer because I get paid to make photographs. In the eyes of certain friends and coworkers, I’m a professional photographer because I’m “good enough” and the right price. In my own eyes, I am an eager-to-learn amateur who lacks certain qualities I associate with professionals, including the presence of mind and resourcefulness to walk into any situation and find a way to accomplish the mission.

That sort of professionalism comes from experience, and nothing in my photographic past prepared me for two hours as the sole photographer at a reception for Journalism and Feminism icon Gloria Steinem.

Strong backlighting was a challenge throughout. Here, Ms. Steinem chats with Sage Publishing founder Sara Miller McCune.

Strong backlighting was a challenge throughout. Here, Ms. Steinem chats with Sage Publishing founder Sara Miller McCune.

I had shot in the room before – unsuccessfully – so I came into the situation nervous but with a plan. There is no ceiling to speak of, and the eastern and southern exposures are picture windows. Ms. Steinem would be backlit for the entire event, but I would have no ceiling on which to bounce flash. I chose to shoot the entire event with on-camera flash units and diffuser domes.

I've shot receptions before, but never for an intellectual rock star. The energy level was very high, and I found it hard to keep my attention or my cameras focused.

I’ve shot receptions before, but never for a rock star. The energy level was very high, and I found it hard to keep my attention or my cameras focused.

I had liberty to roam the room and shoot at will, but I had a responsibility to Ms. Steinem and the attendees too, didn’t I? I couldn’t just keep clicking and firing flashes during their discussion, as much as I wanted to. Ms. Steinem is one of the most photographed people in the world – I wanted my chance to make a special image of a special person, but it was a reception for her, not me.

Here is Ms. Steinem with several of my coworkers, celebrating the conclusion of a very uplifting event.

Ms. Steinem with several of my coworkers, celebrating the conclusion of a very uplifting event. I still plan to retouch the flash hotspots, which of course appear in every picture of the day.

I made one photo that I like (at the top of the post) and several that will serve the purposes of my employer and possibly help some of the other community members who participated in the event.  I got to spend several hours listening to a fascinating person. And I got experience, which is sometimes defined as what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

Regular readers will recall my post about "the fourth light." I may use one or two or three flashes in my portrait work, but it's the light radiating from the subject that makes the picture. Ms. Steinem absolutely glows with passion, empathy, and intellect. Quite fun to be near, frankly.

Regular readers will recall my post about “the fourth light.” I may use one or two or three flashes in my portrait work, but it’s the light radiating from the subject that makes the picture. Ms. Steinem absolutely glows with passion, empathy, and intellect. Quite fun to be near, frankly.

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“How to Take A Decent Picture”

I recommended that Melissa keep her subjects off-center. This image doesn't exactly tell a story, but it does suggest where she is.

I recommended that Melissa keep her subjects off-center. This image doesn’t exactly tell a story, but it does suggest that she is in a garden on a nice day. Yeah, our offices are lovely.

I was honored to see that a coworker scheduled a meeting wherein I would teach her “how to take a decent picture.” She wants to contribute more to our online magazine, as she spends more time than most of us in the field, so she wanted the editor (me) to show her how to make better images.

I talk the talk better than I walk the walk, so the images below are for illustration purposes only.

Here are the fundamentals we worked on today.

  1. Each photo on our site should complement the story and tell a story of its own. One of the reasons photojournalists often work with wide-angle lenses is because they can get very close to the subject while still showing context.
  2. A photo is more compelling if it shows the viewer something he or she would not necessarily have seen. This is why I am fond of high and low angles. I’ve often said my knees are my chief photographic tools, because I’m always dropping to the ground for a more dramatic angle. For our purposes, I’d rather have an interesting image than a perfectly exposed, perfectly focused, perfectly balanced one.
  3. I shared Bob Krist‘s idea that a successful photo has great light, great composition, and a sense of moment.

So, my basic advice was to start out by using a wide-angle setting on her camera, get low and close, look for interesting light, use fill flash outdoors and  window light indoors, seek simple backgrounds, and if you’re getting low and close with a wide angle lens to photograph a person, make sure they lean toward you a bit.

Immediately after the frame at the top of this post, I lowered the camera near the table for this low angle shot. It's not a great photo, but it's more interesting than the first shot, and it includes her camera, which is very much a part of the story...

Immediately after the frame at the top of this post, I lowered the camera to the table for this low angle shot. It’s not a great photo, but it’s more interesting than the first shot, suggests a sense of moment, and it includes her camera, which is very much a part of the story…

To demonstrate the utility of fill-flash, we stepped into the bright day and snapped this one without flash.

To demonstrate the utility of fill-flash, we stepped into the bright day and snapped this one without flash. My camera has a lot more dynamic range than hers, so this isn’t terrible, but…

…fill flash makes a BIG difference in this scenario.

…look at those eyes! Fill flash makes a BIG difference in a backlit scenario.

We also talked about establishing shots…

…and detail shots.

…and detail shots.

What a wonderful exercise this turned out to be for me! I had to really think about “how to take a decent picture,” and articulate the fundamentals to someone who is not a photographic hobbyist. Best of all, the things I determined were most important to a decent photo for our magazine apply equally to her pocket camera and my DSLR – the picture is made behind the viewfinder, not in the camera.

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