Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My New Light Modifiers

I recently acquired a couple of new light modifiers that I am pretty excited about. First, I bought a Saberstrip strip light. Using relatively large light diffusers outside can sometimes be problematic if there is any appreciable amount of wind. In addition, there are numerous situations, both indoors and out, where a strip light comes in handy, especially one that can be fit in some fairly small spaces. So when I saw this Saberstrip, I just had to have one to try it out.


The diffuser on the Saberstrip measures about 2-3/8 inches wide by about 29.5 inches long. That works out to about 70 square inches of diffuser area. The unit is 39 inches long, overall.

The Saberstrip can be used in a variety of ways. You can hand-hold it, you can lay it on the ground, or you can attach it to a light stand using the built-in 1/4-20 threaded insert in the bottom end. To change the flash power, you simply loosen the yellow thumb screw, lift the long tube off the bottom, and make your adjustments.


I used Pocketwizards to sync with the Saberstrip, as you can see here:


After reading this Strobist blog post, I was so impressed with the lighting setup that I had to run right out and get another light diffuser. This one is an official David Hobby Strobist® light diffuser (AKA Walmart bedsheet). I added my own modification to my new Strobist® light diffuser: I had my wife sew a loop (hem) in each end so I could slide it onto the pole that holds it up so I could use it without securing it with "A" clamps if I wanted to.  My wife was very happy to do this, because when I am doing my photography, I'm not creating saw-dust and tracking it all over the house (my other hobby is woodworking.) Here is a photo of my official David Hobby Strobist® light diffuser (AKA Walmart bedsheet) in action:






Trying out the Saberstrip, I first made an exposure without any fill light. Here is an example of a photo lit only by the Saberstrip, located about 45 degrees on camera right:


Although the Saberstrip does not "wrap" the light along its narrow width as much as a medium size softbox would, it "wraps" beautifully along its long axis. On the long axis, it is just as good as a 30" softbox. In many situations, you need the large diffusion mostly on one long dimension, and the smaller amount of diffusion in the narrow axis, while limited, is still quite useful.

Now, to add fill light, I included my new official David Hobby Strobist® light diffuser (AKA Walmart bedsheet). I set it up behind me, with a Paul C. Buff Einstein studio light set about 2 feet behind it to shoot through the sheet. This provided what I believe to be the perfect fill light. It does its job without being conspicuous. Here is the photo with the fill light added.


If you had not seen the photo before this one, you would hardly notice the fill light. It does its job without being conspicuous. The importance of the fill light, however, becomes obvious when you take it away and look at a photo without it.

I think this is a pretty handy 2-light portrait setup.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Timing And Point Of View

Two factors that have a tremendous impact on the quality of your photographs are timing and point of view. There are two time periods during the day that provide the most interesting and most pleasing light: the first is in the morning from about 20 minutes before sunrise to about 1 hour after sunrise. The second is in the evening from about 1 hour before sunset to about 20 minutes after sunset. This photograph, taken just as the sun was rising, also took advantage of the timing of the ocean tide. I was fortunate on the date this photograph was taken that the tide was low at sunrise. If the tide was high that morning, this particular photograph would have been impossible or, at least it would have looked very different.


The second factor that contributed greatly to making this an interesting photograph was point of view. If I just stood on the balcony of my hotel and took a photograph of the sunrise, it would not have had the impact of this photo. Even if I stood on the beach to photograph the sunrise, it still would not have had the impact of this image. It would have been just another ho-hum sunrise snapshot.

  To make this photo, I went out to a part of the beach that would be under water at hight tide, and got down very low, close to the sand. To help me do this, I used a  Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod with a
 Manfrotto 496RC2 Ball Head
.  The unique features of this tripod allow you to flip the vertical column to a horizontal position, and the 3 legs can be spread out to an almost horizontal position (or even full horizontal, flat on the ground, if you want). This combination of features let you position the camera very close to the ground and hold it steady for long exposure times. The 496RC2 Ball Head lets you set the camera angle precisely where you want it for your photo's composition.
 
  This photograph was taken with a
 Canon 5D Mark II camera with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens
set at 24mm. The exposure was 1 second at f/22 and ISO 100. You can get fairly similar results with less expensive cameras, such as a
 Canon Rebel T3 with 18-55mm zoom lens
or a Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm zoom lens. Both of these less expensive cameras have a smaller image sensor than the  Canon 5D Mark II so the 18mm setting on the kit lens that comes with them would have approximately the same angle of view as a 28mm lens on the Canon 5D. So you wouldn't be able to get quite as wide an angle of view as you see in the above photograph, but you could come pretty close. If you wanted to get the same, or even wider angle of view on these less expensive cameras, you could do it with a Canon 10-22mm lens or a Nikon 10-24mm lens. With either of these lenses (depending on whether you choose a Canon or Nikon system) the 10mm lens setting would give you an angle of view approximately equivalent to a very wide 16mm on cameras like the Canon 5D.

 Here is a photograph of the same beach, taken with the same camera and lens, with the lens set to the same focal length (24mm) as the first photo.


The camera was set to properly expose each of the two images, based on the lighting conditions in each. The principal difference between the two photographs are the time the photograph was taken and the point of view. These two elements can make the difference between a simple snapshot and a great photograph that you may want to frame and put up on your living room wall.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Best Book on Photographic Lighting

I have read a number of books on photographic lighting. Many are merely like cookbooks that show you how to set up lights to photograph a number of specific situations. At least one that I read was so specialized that it was quite useless to anyone who wasn't already somewhat of an expert on photo lighting. One book, however, stands out as superior to all other photographic lighting books I have read: Light Science and Magic by Fil Hunter, Paul Fuqua, and Steven Biver.

This book teaches you the fundamental principals of light, how it behaves, and how to use these principals to solve just about any lighting problem you may encounter. For example, while some lighting books will show you how to emphasize the texture of a given subject with a specific lighting technique, Light Science and Magic shows you why a given technique that will emphasize texture in a light colored subject will not work with a dark colored subject, and points out why what works with light colored subjects is the worst possible way to light a dark colored subject.

By learning a relatively small number of fundamental principals, such as the characteristics and differences between diffuse reflection, ordinary direct reflection, and polarized direct reflection, the size of the light source relative to the subject, the various angles between the light and subject and between the camera and subject, you will be able to decide what kind of light is best to use and how best to position the light or lights. Instead of relying on a set of cookbook lighting set-ups that won't prepare you for every lighting problem you may encounter, Light Science and Magic will prepare you to solve just about any photographic lighting problem you may encounter.

The principals that you will learn in Light Science and Magic don't just apply to studio lights or electronic flash/speedlights. The same principals apply to sunlight, light from a blue sky, a cloudy sky, moonlight, or candle-light. Even if you never take a single picture using flash, and you use only available light, the principals that you will learn in the book will help you to make better photographs.

If you have only one book on photo lighting, Light Science and Magic is the  book to have.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Some Thoughts On Photo Equipment

I am an amateur photographer (one who does photography purely for the love of it.) Except for the simple Brownie Point and Shoot cameras that were prevalent in the 1950's, my first serious camera was a used 35mm rangefinder camera with a fixed lens. I was able to make some very good 16X20 inch prints from Tri-X pan film shot with this camera.

My first flash was a folding flash gun that used M2 flashbulbs. After several years, I found a smaller flash that used the much smaller AG-1 bulbs that were small enough that I could carry a couple of dozen flashbulbs in my pocket. At that time, many photojournalists were using Norman electronic flash units with a power pack that they carried on their shoulder, and Rollei 2-1/4" square twin reflex cameras. (Not long afterwards, the Nikon F 35mm camera became the favorite.)  At that time I broke into the electronic flash world by purchasing a Spiratone AC powered electronic flash that was one of the cheapest electronic flash units on the market. I also purchased a battery powered pack for it that used C-batteries (I think it was 6 C-cells, but it may have been 8). I didn't get many flashes from the battery pack, and the C-cells were not cheap. If there were no cheap knock-offs like the Spiratone at the time, I would not have purchased an electronic flash. Honeywell was a very popular, but expensive portable electronic flash at the time, and I was fortunate to be able to use one that belonged to the student photography club when I was in college, but there was no way I could afford to buy one. About that time, the Honeywell flash became one of the most popular units among photojournalists.

My first SLR was a Nikon FT2 with a 50mm f/2 lens. I purchased a knock-off 200mm lens and a knock-off 2X tele-extender. If knock-off lenses were not available, I would have stayed with just the 50mm lens. There was no way I could afford a Nikon telephoto lens at the time. In later years, I did purchase a Nikon 105mm f/2.5 lens which I still own, as well as a 24mm, and 35mm (all Nikon AI.) I also added Nikon FE and Nikon FM bodies.

When I switched to digital (in 2007 I think) I switched to Canon. I now own a Canon 50D and a Canon 5D MarkII. I use only Canon lenses. I don't even use cheap knock-off filters. I put a Canon UV filter on the front of each of my lenses. I also own 3 Canon flashes: 2 580 EXII's and a 430 EX. I believe in paying the price to purchase top quality camera gear from top manufacturers with reputations for quality.

However, I own 7 other flashes, and plan to buy more. I do not want eTTL flashes, nor do I want to pay the price for eTTL when I only plan to use them manually. I have 3 used Nikon SB-26's, one of which works, the second one is being repaired at a cost of $120, and I'm not sure whether I will get the third one repaired which would cost $150. I also own a Vivitar 283 that I purchased new in 1976, and Vivitar 285 HV that I purchased two years ago. The last two are a Lumopro LP160, and a Yongnuo YN-560II.

If Canon made a manual-only flash that had the features of the Lumopro LP 160 or the Yongnuo YN-560II, and if they priced it in the neighborhood of $200, I would purchase several. (This would not be an unreasonable price, considering that I can purchase a new 430 EXII for $279.) However, Canon has not cared to make a manual-only flash, and I doubt if they ever will. Thus, my only option is to look elsewhere. The used Nikons used to be a good option, but their e-Bay prices have become unattractive, especially since the probability is high that such used flashes would need repair soon.

That brings me to the Lumopro LP 160, which is an excellent value. The one shortcoming of the LP160, from my perspective, is that it will not fit into the new innovative Saberstrip light modifiers that are especially good for use outdoors in somewhat windy conditions. The LP120 would fit, but Lumopro has discontinued that model. This has led me to try the Yongnuo YN-560II. This flash not only fits the Saberstrip, but it can be set from full-power down to 1/128th power in 1/3 stop increments, while the LP160 will only to go down to 1/64th power in full stop increments. So my attraction to the Yongnuo is not due to it being a cheap knock-off to anything, but the the unique features it has: manual only, built in slave, settable between full power and 1/128th in 1/3 stop increments and it fits into the Saberstrip. The only drawback to the Yongnuo is its manufacturer's shaky reputation for quality control and reliability.

Since I now own 10 flashes, the marginal utility of additional units does not come anywhere near the price of a new Canon eTTL flash. If I could find a manual flash with all the features that I want for $200, I would probably purchase a half-dozen of them over a reasonable period of time. As it happens, the Yongnuo is the only flash that fully meets the specifications of what I am looking for. The fact that its price, at under $90, is less than half the price I would be willing to pay a reliable manufacturer for one, makes me willing to take a chance that Yongnuo has improved its reliability. Even if 50 per-cent of the units prove to be lemons, I am still ahead of the game. So far, my one YN-560II has been working like a charm. If it should fail, I have pleny of backup with my other flashes.

The free enterprise system, with free and open markets, provides the greatest value to the greatest number of people, at the lowest cost. New product innovations usually command, and get premium prices for the new value they present. But after the initial (and substantial) cost of R&D is covered, and with improvements in production techniques and materials, there is room for prices to drop substantially. (Consider the fact that the first 36 inch flat screen, HD tv's sold for more than $10,000.) History's greatest free market innovators have always provided great value for everyone and helped to bring the prices down below the point where such value would have cost before they came on the scene. However, innovative producers cannot just rest on their laurels. To remain relevant, they must constantly work toward improving their products and lowering their costs. Consider the performance and contributions of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, James J. Hill, Henry Ford, John Hartford (A&P), J. C. Penney, Sam Walton, and Steve Jobs, just to name a few.

Consider Apple. Practically every product produced by Apple met with knock-off's from almost every direction. However, the genius of Steve Jobs was able to keep at least one or, more often, several steps ahead of the competition. It will be interesting to see if Apple can stay out in front now that Jobs is gone. As long as entrepreneurs are free to apply their innovative skills to compete in the marketplace, those who can provide us with spectacular breakthroughs in new products and lower prices will do so. Those who can not keep up with the truly exceptional entrepreneurs will become more prosperous themselves by working for the ones who can. (Many talented people who could never compete with Steve Jobs' genius became millionaires by working for him.)

One additional thought, on the subject of amateurs versus professionals: consider the fact that the Titanic was built by professionals, and the Ark was built by an amateur. Just because some experts have created high quality products does not mean they can sit back and rake in profits without constant improvement and innovation. A free and open market keeps all businessmen on their toes to keep improving their business and staying ahead of the competition. At the same time, it provides the opportunity for the individual with a great idea to break in to the market with new innovations that can make everyones' lives better.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Twilight Lighting

Balancing the lights on a building with the light of the sky can lead to many interesting photographs. To do this, you want to start photographing just after sunset. Start out with an exposure that correctly exposes the building lights. At first, right after sunset, the sky will be much too bright. As the minutes pass by, the light intensity of the sky will be falling. Somewhere between 10 and 25 minutes after sunset, you will find that the light intensity of the sky pretty much matches the light intensity of the building lights. This is the magic moment you want to take your picture.


This photo of a popular local ice cream shop was taken about 20 minutes after sunset, just when the intensity of the sky matched the light intensity of the sign on the building. A tungsten light balance was set so the sky would show up as a fairly deep blue. This is a technique I learned from David Hobby's Strobist website.

This photo was taken on a Canon 50D with a Canon EF-S 15-85mm lens. The lens was set to 19mm and the exposure was at f/5.6 for 1/30 sec. (ISO 400).

Learning to balance light in a wide variety of situations is an important element in good photography. These exercises are helping me to become a better photographer.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Morning Photos

This Christmas morning I tried out an off camera, multi-light setup that I learned from David Hobby on his Strobist blog. This setup worked great! Here is a sample of my grandchildren playing with their new Wii video gaming system.
Based on the information I learned on Strobist, I used two Nikon SB-26 electronic flash units placed in opposite corners of the room. Each flash unit was mounted on a light stand and aimed at the ceiling from about a foot away. The flash units were set on manual, and set to 1/2 power. One flash was connected to a PocketWizard Plus II, and the other was set to use its internal optical slave. Photos were taken with a Canon 5D Mark II and the remote flash was triggered by a PocketWizard TT1 (for Canon) unit.

The walls were light beige in color, and they, along with a table lamp, added a slight warming to the light

I am learning a great deal about photographic lighting from Strobist. I recently purchased a set of DVD's on photographic lighting by Dean Collins, one of photography's greatest lighting innovators. I learned about him and found the link to purchase these DVD's in a Strobist article about Collins.