Monday, February 26, 2007

..."About The Author, Eh"

Last summer's workshop on Rabbit Island, in British Columbia provided lots of great nature photo ops. But, we were all pleasantly surprised to find out that June, our hostess, cook, and renaissance woman in-residence, was just completing work on an autobiography of her adventures in the Great White North.

Her publisher needed just one more item to complete the initial draft....a picture of June. Or, more specifically, an Environmental Portrait for the cover.

Perfect timing....I was there conducting a week long class, and had lots of anxious gaffers and grips ready to help make this happen. And, they worked Hollywood "union scale" here, on a remote island. All they demanded for pay was yet another, decadent meal of fresh, local clams and oysters. So, an agreement was struck....June offered to prepare the meal, which was to be served-up during that evening's sunset cruise... aboard a World War 2 vintage, amphibious, beach-assault craft, while we all drifted aimlessly....just offshore of this small island.

So, I'm thinkin....not a bad trade for a simple headshot!

With an environmental portrait, the background is almost as significant as the subject themself. In fact, occasionally, even more so.

We picked a dramatic, yet typical mountainous backdrop, and positioned June with her back to the harsh afternoon light. I wanted to use the ambient light as a backlight, to create nice separation of June from the mountains. While, at the same time, giving a nice glow to her hair, and cheek.

With her face now in deep shadow, there was a need to bring the light level up to the overall brightness of the scene. We had a couple options here, and I opted to use a flash-fill. And to give the quality of the light a studio look, we shot the small Metz flash thru a translucent Westcott pop-up panel. By positioning the flash head about 3 feet back from the panel, the beam coverage was large enough to illuminate the entire surface of the fabric. This increased size of the light source is what gives the final image it's nice, soft, studio look.

A couple of technical items to be aware of here: When shooting directly into the sun, there's a big chance of lens flare. So, always use a lens shade....and make sure that there's no direct light striking the front element of your lens. And, with June posed with her back to the sun, she was a significantly more comfortable, and we avoided a lot of potential squinting.

June was pleased with the picture.....and the assistants ate well that nite.

Shot with the Fuji S-3 on a Manfrotto Neo-Tech tripod, using the Tamron 28-75mm zoom at 75mm focal length.
ISO was at 100 Exposure was f/11 at 1/125th second...using the flash on manual at 1/2 power. No exposure compensation.

No Canadians were harmed during the filming of this portrait . With one possible exception; Captain Hugh Jervis actually slipped on a wine bottle aboard the barge that evening. But ,then again, that doesn't count. He's a Kiwi.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Shutter Speeds and Moving Water

1/2 sec
2 sec
5 sec

Shutter Speeds and Moving Water

Seems kind of crazy to actually TRY to create an intentional blur.

But, for nature photography, this is a fairly common goal. And, there's a few specific conditions that need to exist for the results to be acceptable.

The first thing that I'm looking for is a nice waterfall or cascade that has a fairly even mix of tonal values within the water. Too much white water, and you'll end up with completely blown out highlights...and with no variation in the tonal values, and as a result, there will be no sense of movement.

Another necessary characteristic in the scene is for the overall light to be fairly dim, and of a very soft quality. If the brightness level is very high, it will be difficult to shoot at the long shutter speeds necessary to create the desired blurred effect.

Start by setting the ISO to 100, or the lowest your camera allows. This decreased sensitivity will give you an automatically longer shutter speed.

And, in most situations, I'll stop the aperture down to 16 or 22 to force the shutter to stay open longer. Remember, these can be varied as needed, to target the correct shutter speed.

I've found that in most situations, for this technique, I'm shooting in open shade or very heavy cloud cover. So, be aware of the white balance setting. Start off using the Shady or Cloudy pre-set. If this doesn't get you close enough, try the Expo Disc for a custom white balance.

Long shutter speeds can contribute to excessive noise in the final image. By shooting RAW files, you have more ways to reduce this in post production. NIK Software's "Define" is a good option.

And the final ingredient for a successful execution of this technique is for there to be wind-free conditions. This is especially important if there are any trees, branches or flowers in the scene. Blur in the water will look fine, but, if any foliage is moving, it can ruin the shot.

So, to recap, here's what you need. A suitable body of water with a nice mix of darks and lights. Soft, dim light. A fairly small aperture of approximately f/16. Low ISO setting of 100. Shoot in RAW. And finally, wind-free conditions.

As far as gear....the primary essential here, is to have the camera on a tripod......pretty straightforward, but, all these ingredients are essential.

Keep in mind, there's no magic shutter speed to use. It can vary greatly, with the speed of the water flow...and your distance to the subject. Experiment, and take mental notes, so you'll have a basic idea for a reasonable starting point in the future.

I've included a few examples to show how differing shutter speeds can result in varying results.

For all six of these images, the camera remained on the tripod, and, at the same focal length. Tamron 28-75mm zoom. Nothing changed, except for the shutter speeds (and apertures) It's really amazing to look at these shots and keep in mind that the subject matter is EXACTLY the same in all 6 frames. Shutter speed selection is a very important creative tool, and can make a huge difference in the execution of your ideas.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Battery Powered Strobes On Location

Traveling around the country can be a lot of fun. But, the challenges of carrying loads of heavy, studio flash units can verge on the ridiculous!

For the past few days we've been on location, with our traveling print display, in San Francisco at a major sport, vacation, and travel show at a place called The Cow Palace, of all things. Between manning the booth and getting up early to do some nature shooting, the last thing I want to deal with is a bunch of unweildy power packs, and all the cables and extension cords that are involved. But, part of what I'm responsible for here is to take some publicity shots for the show management to use to promote future shows in Long Beach and San Diego.

Since the typical visitor to this show is a fun loving, outdoorsman who more than likely enjoys an occasional beer. It only makes sense that any entertainers hired to amuse these fellows should be attractive, and of the opposite sex. And that's exactly what we have here....and it's my job to document said talent, and provide show management with publicity photos.

So, a couple times a day, there's a stage show....complete with live music, a talented commentator....and of course the afore-mentioned talented young ladies....being cheered on by the chauvanistic crowd. Sounds kinda primal and cliche....but, hey, it works, and everyone has a great time.

Well, after shooting a couple of the shows with a hand-held camera and an on-camera flash...I felt I needed to kick it up a notch on the quality scale, and try some posed shots with multiple lights. This was done primarily as a personal challenge, and an attempt to try out some new gear that hadn't been used, yet.

So, we arranged a time to do the session immediately after one of the shows. And, I couldn't wait to try out the new 6 foot diameter Westcott umbrella, which was being lit up with a very small flash unit powered only by 4 AA batteries. This would serve as the main light....and we'd be using a Westcott pop-up reflector as the fill. The second, small flash unit attached to a mini light stand was covered with a blue celophane gel....this was coming in from behind the subjects, and was serving as a hair light to help separate them from the dark background. And, finally the third flash unit was set directly on the ground and was aimed upward to throw some light on the background. All 3 of these flashes were being triggered by a radio signal coming from a transmitter, mounted to the hot-shoe of my camera......and, if this only! Quite a lofty attempt with only a total of 12 AA batteries... to light up a group of 4.....and using a shoot- thru umbrella, no less! I flash back to how this would be attempted in the studio; with our 750 watt second packs....and probably a 4000 watt second bounce head off the ceiling. This seems almost like a joke......but, with the ever-improving quality of the higher ISO's on digital cameras....and the use of a fairly wide aperture, we had a fighting chance. And, afterall, I'll be keeping the subjects in REAL close to the light source to minimize fall-off, and to take advantage of the almost magical quality of a huge light source, in close, to light up a's certainly one of my favorite techniques.

These were all shot at f/4 at 1/60th, the depth of field is very shallow...but, not a problem here. The final images were color corrected in Photoshop, and a vignette was added to darken the edges, and draw the viewer's attention to the main subject.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lens Cap Overboard!

Just the thought of dropping ANY camera gear into the water drives me nuts.

Last summer, I got a surprise phone call from my good friend, Craig Wolf, who was supposed to be in the middle of a 2 week shooting trip to the pacific northwest.....but, he was calling from in the LA area. "What's up?" I asked. Well, he had dropped his brand new Canon Mark II 1Ds in the ocean, and it was toast! Seven grand. What a way to end a trip.

So, last week we were shooting from a bridge over the Merced River in Yosemite valley...... as usual, while changing lenses, I had set some excess gear on the wooden rail. While reaching for the tripod, the lenscap got bumped, and fell to the surface of the slow-moving water, below. My thoughts quickly flashed back to Craig's nightmare at the ocean, and was relieved to think that my loss here was about three bucks! In reality, the least costly piece of gear in my bag!

Someone in the group yelled out, to let me know that something had fallen overboard. The splash of plastic on the still water added a few interesting ripples to the surface, and I heard the shutters clicking to capture the harmonic patterns. Nice! ....everyone else getting better pictures at my expense. Well, at least the expense was pretty darn low. Luckily, this lenscap floated....and since the water flow was so low, it wasn't going anywhere.

It's funny, how people react to situations based on their past experiences, or even occupations.

Manny Ybanez, who was standing on the river bank below, is a trauma / critical-care surgeon in Florida. So, when he heard the cry..."overboard!"... he went into action. He quickly assesed the situation, and determined that an immediate rescue attempt was in order, and he was in a good location to execute the procedure.

As our errant victim drifted and slowly washed closer to shore....Manny found the appropriate tool (a nearby stick) and at the risk of his own personal safety, saved the day.


I certainly hope that John Adler and Jessie Friend, along with the other good folks at Lee Filters learn of this heroic effort to prevent the potential loss of one of their custom accessories. Not to mention littering and pollution potential to one of our national parks. Just imagine how Manny would have reacted, had I dropped a complete lens shade and filter holder, along with a couple filters!

PS... a month or so later, Craig's submerged camera body mysteriously came back to life, and is now working fine.

Shown Below: The temporarily missing Lens Cover back in it's proper place

Friday, February 9, 2007

Yosemite Winter Workshop

Yosemite in the Winter!

Ah, fresh snow......the valley-floor draped in a white blanket of new-fallen flakes. Tree branches bending under the weight of the snow, delicately clinging to the pine needles. Sounds wonderful....but, it certainly doesn't describe the conditions we experienced last weekend at this famous national park. Our weather pattern was clear, calm and sunny. Definitely NOT what we were expecting.

Exactly one year ago we nailed it! New snow on the first morning. Followed by 2 days of some of the most amazing, right- in-your-face, winter classics.

But, this year was going to be a scramble. Any good images we were to get would have to be searched out, and carefully executed. A real test of our ingenuity and creativity. Which was quite a change...especially YOSEMITE! There have been times here, when the camera accidently fired while hiking, and the resulting picture was quite usable!

No snow, bare trees and low water levels. At least the crowds were down, and there wasn't the concern of having unwanted tourists in the background for every shot. Well, that's the bad news. The good news is we're in Yosemite...and even in these tough conditions it's still an amazingly beautiful place to shoot. Just not the same classic images we had expected.

This shot, for example, was from January of 2006. Taken from Swinging Bridge, and shooting downstream on the Merced River. A real no-
brainer...everywhere you looked was a shot just screaming-out to be taken.

2007, however was going to be the year of reflections, and ice-crystals. Direct sunlight on the base of the waterfalls, creating wispy rainbows. Macro shots of frost-covered leaves and ferns. Frozen oak leaves, encrusted in a thick slab of clear ice. We were certainly forced to look a little harder, and come up with some original trophy images.

We were out shooting before sunrise, and got a shot of the full moon, just as it snuck behind the cliff near Yosemite Lodge parking area. The contrast between the bright moon and the dark sky was too great to shoot the ACTUAL moon itself......this is just a hint of the halation as it lightens up the peripheral area. Exposure was 5 seconds at f/8. ISO was set at 200, and the white balance at Tungsten to enhance the already deep blue, eastern sky.

And, just a few minutes later, now facing east, we could see a hint of the soon-to-be sunrise. A few clouds provided a nice surface for the light pink glow. The exposure had radically changed in these few minutes. Now, it was only one second at f/8 with the white balance set for Daylight. If we'd kept it set for Tungsten, the red in the clouds would have shifted too much.

Right after breakfast, we took a hike over to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. The overall water volume was low...but, still plenty of mist and vapor as the stream cascaded over the cliff, and splashed against the rocks at the base. As soon as the first direct rays of the sunlight hit that specific area....Wow! This rainbow effect went on for at least 45 minutes. Constantly changing as the sun moved higher in the sky, and the volume of water increased with the rising temperatures.

The early morning shade in this very deep valley keeps the temperatures cold for a good part of the day. Even at 10 am there was still a nice frosty coating to these miniature ferns. They were shot with a Tamron 180mm Macro lens, using a tripod as the branch layed on the forest floor, right on the bank of the Merced River. White balance was set to the Shady pre-set, initially....however, this still wasn't enough for the extremely high quantity of UV. High elevation and deep shade are a good recipe for excessive blue. No problem, however. A couple of seconds was all it took to come up with a CUSTOM white-balance using the Expo Disc, and we nailed the colors perfectly.

Ravens seem to be everywhere in the valley. And especially if you look like you may be a source of food! This guy had flown in and landed right near the car while we were shooting El Capitan.

I quickly threw on the 200-500mm zoom and powered up the flash to help light up the dark feathers. But, from over 50 feet away, the on-camera flash was no match for the deep black values of this guy.

It just took about a minute to attach the "Flash Extender" to the flash unit on-camera.....and the output was increased by 3 stops. This gizmo was invented by Walt Anderson, and it's amazing. It uses a fresnel lens to concentrate the beam, and increase the amount of light that hits the subject. And, as long as you're shooting with a pretty long lens, there's no visible light fall-off (vignetting) at the edges. It certainly saved this image. If you're shooting with one of the APS size sensors, a 200mm is all you need......and you'll be able to take full advantage of this remarkable, and inexpensive accessory.

For the next demo, we posed Justine in front of a dramatic backdrop of Yosemite Falls and the granite cliffs. However, we were ALL standing in some pretty deep shade. Knowing that there was absolutely nothing I could do to change the amount of light in the background, the only option was to use a flash-fill technique, to bring the brightness level UP on Justine, and for a split second, match the sunlit falls.

The first image in this series clearly demonstrates what happens when your main subject, that is 4 stops under the background brightness level, is included in the picture ....and the overall exposure is set for the highlights...or, in this case the sunny area. There's absolutely nothing recorded here. Think of it this 4 stops under-exposed, she's receiving 1/16th the amount of light as the background!

And this next image is very easily improved by the addition of an off-camera flash unit, used to bring up the brightness level to match the background. Using the magic of a tethered TTL flash, off to my left, and high, we were able to add a very nice 3-D look to this outdoor portrait.

And, for this final version I used the Nik Color Efex 2.0 filter kit. It's a plug-in for Photoshop, and there's a ton of options. This was achieved with the B&W conversion filter....very simply converted the entire image to a nice black and white version, and then painted the color back in!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Depth of Field Basics

Being able to effectively control what's IN focus and what's NOT is one of the basic techniques available to the user of a manually operable camera. For this fairly straightforward demonstration, I've got the camera on a tripod, and both images are taken of exactly the same scene. The only thing that alters how they look is a radical change in the aperture , or f/stop, at which they were shot.

Using a 28-75mm zoom lens at 40mm, I manually focused the lens on the intricate detail of the wooden decorative post in the foreground. The lens was also manually set to the widest aperture, which was 2.8, in this case. And, as you can see, there is very little that is in sharp focus....or what's termed "shallow depth of field" It's not right or wrong....just one way to shoot this scene. And because of the lack of overall focus, we have directed the viewer to look at the foreground detail. A nice way to create an almost 3-D effect, with the background so soft. The shutter speed for this "wide-open" exposure was 1/30th of a second. So, it could have possibly been handheld.

However, for the second image, my objective was to try and bring as much of the background into focus, and maintain crisp sharpness on the foreground, also. This is where the magic happens! And this technique holds true for all gain as much overall focus as possible, the aperture needs to be closed down to it's smallest this case f/32. The focal length remained constant, and the lens remained focused on the same point.....however, when the meter reading was taken thru the lens at this VERY small aperture, the shutter speed had increased tremendously. There's 7 stops difference between 2.8 and 32. So the shutter was open for four seconds! No way to even attempt to handhold this baby!

But, man, what a difference in overall focus. The clock in the background was so soft in the first example, it was unidentifiable.

There's even more to this than what was shown here.....but, for a BASIC lesson, I'll stop here.
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