Category Archives: Flash

Austin Shutterbug Club Still-Life Workshop

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Last Saturday, August 3, 2013, the Austin Shutterbug Club had a still-life and tabletop photography workshop at the Northwest Austin Recreation Center. This was a welcome outing for the month of August, as it was something that we could do indoors, in an air conditioned room!

The workshop was presented by the club’s president, Brian Loflin. Brian had brought along several interesting items that could be arranged on a tabletop and that we could use to photograph, while observing the effects of different lighting techniques.

Brian set-up 4 different still life sets and he emphasized that he was going to light them with very simple setups. The first scene was a bowl of apples in top of a lacey old tablecloth. The light source was a north-facing window to the right of the camera, and a white foam core board was just to the left of the bowl of apples.

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I was using my Canon 5D Mark II camera and my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens for all of these photos. In the photo above, I had set the aperture to f/5.6 to get a relatively shallow depth of field. Later on, I came back to this bowl of apples and shot it with my aperture set to f/25, and as you can see, the table cloth behind the apples is now in focus, too.

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In between the two “bowl of apples” shots, Brian had set up an interesting arrangement of old photography books, a pen, and some reading glasses. He used the light from a window, but used to small foam core boards to block the light into a very pleasing “slit of light” across the objects.

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Next, he set up a collection of sewing tools and supplies on a black piece of Plexiglass. He then used one of my Fotodiox 312AS LED lights placed behind the objects (backlight) and used two small white foam core boards on either side to bounce some light back onto the fronts of these objects.

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Even though Brian had cleaned that sheet of Plexiglass right before he set this scenario up, when I brought this photo up onto my computer monitor, I was very surprised at all of the dust and scratches that the camera had captured. I spent at least 45 minutes in Photoshop cleaning all of that up….

For the last still life setup, Brian had placed a vase of yellow flowers in front of a dark green velvet backdrop. We all set our cameras to capture some ambient light, while we used a snoot on a speedlite to put a circle of light right onto the flowers themselves.

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I was very pleased to get the opportunity to participate in this little workshop. It was a fun thing to do inside, away from the Texas summer heat. I could easily see myself doing much more of this type of photography in the future! Maybe I can convert one of our spare bedrooms (sometimes) into a miniature little product and still life photography studio. Honey?

Thank you for stopping by and visiting my blog today.

Experimenting with Outdoor Macro Photography Using Flash

20130510_Flash_Macro_089We haven’t been working very late into the Friday afternoons at the office lately. So, last Friday (May 10, 2013) I headed home about 2:00 PM. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, even though the temperature was above average – it was going approaching 90 degrees (32 C). I didn’t want to just sit around in the house surfing the web… I wanted to go out and make some photos!

The sky was a clear blue, with virtually no clouds. I thought that might help make some great downtown photos, but I didn’t want to deal with the hour long Friday afternoon rush hour traffic to get home. It was fairly breezy, so I didn’t want to try and do some macro photography of flowers wagging madly in that wind. Or did I?

Earlier in the week, I had attended Syl Arena’s Speedliter’s Intensive Workshop that he held here in Austin. Syl is universally recognized as the world’s renown guru on Canon Speedlite flash photography. If you are a Canon shooter, you simply must buy, read, and re-read his Speedliter’s Handbook.

Now I certainly wasn’t in the mood to be walking around my neighborhood with my heavy Canon 5D Mark II camera, the 100mm (non-IS) macro lens, and a 580EX II Speedlite. I was however, willing to try something new with my Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera. I thought I’d go out and try to stop the flowers in their tracks by using flash….

Now the rest of this blog is aimed toward my photography-oriented friends. If that’s not you, then feel free to stop reading right here and just scroll down through the photos. I’m about to describe the gear and the technique that I used to make these photos….

Since it was nearly 2:30 PM, with the sun high in the sky and no clouds in site, I doubted that I would need the f/2.8 aperture of my new Olympus 60mm macro lens. Instead, I decided that I would take my more versatile Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens, which also has a macro mode. (When in macro mode, the focal length is fixed at 43mm; 86mm equivalent on a full frame sensor camera.) On top of that, since it was so dang bright, I put a circular polarizer filter onto it.

Using a low ISO of 200, a small aperture opening (higher f-stop number), and a circular polarizer would normally require the shutter to stay open much longer than one would normally want – if their goal was to stop the motion of a flower wagging in the wind.

I intended to find out if using the very short duration burst of light that a portable flash emits could be used to stop that motion. I grabbed my Olympus FL-600R Wireless Electronic Flash and strapped a Small ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBenders reflector onto the top of the flash unit.

Since I didn’t want to use the flash while it was mounted in the hot shoe on top of the camera, I also grabbed my Canon OC-E3 Off-Camera Shoe Cord. One end of the cord attaches to the hot shoe of the camera, while the other end attaches to the base of the FL-600R flash unit. And yes, the Canon cord works perfectly with the Olympus camera and portable flash.

(I also have a virtually identical cord; the Vello OCS-C6, which is about half the price of the Canon cord. I keep the two cords together in identical zip-lock baggies, and I just happened to pick up the Canon cord.)

I put a spare camera battery into my right pants pocket, and 4 spare AA batteries in a holder into my left pants pocket.

OK, so that was my gear. My camera settings were to operate the camera in manual mode. I wanted the lowest ISO, which is 200 on this camera. I wanted the highest shutter speed, while not exceeding the sync speed of the camera, so I set it to 1/200th of a second. (The sync speed of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is actually 1/250th of a second, but I couldn’t remember that, so I played it safe and set the shutter speed to 1/200th of a second.)

OK, so ISO was 200. Shutter speed was 1/200th of a second. What was my aperture? That was the variable that I played with!  I adjusted the aperture until the meter reading in the electronic viewfinder indicated anything from -1/3 stop down to -2 full stops below a proper exposure. In other words, I was simply underexposing the photo – until I got the flash involved. (Yes, I suppose I could have operated the camera in shutter priority mode and just dialed-in some negative exposure compensation.)

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Before heading out into my neighborhood, I went out our back door, onto our deck (patio) and set a custom white balance in the camera. I thought that the direct sunlight would have the same color temperature as the flash, and that they would be about 5500 degrees Kelvin. My WhiBal card indicated differently, and later Lightroom agreed with the camera that there was no color cast with the Temp slider at 5950 and the Tint slider at +3. That’s where I left the white balance on all of the photos that I took later, except for the ones with bright yellow petals. On those, I cooled down the temperature to 5350 degrees Kelvin.

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You can see in the photo above how dark (underexposed) the background is. That is what I was trying to do. I was intentionally adjusting the aperture so that the background would be slightly underexposed like that.

The magic happens when I turned on the flash. By putting the flash unit into the automated TTL (Through the Lens metering) mode – instead of manual mode – the flash puts out enough light until the camera thinks it has seen enough light needed for a proper exposure at the current aperture setting. When the camera and flash working together in TTL mode seemed to underexpose or overexpose the object in the foreground, the only control that I had for me to alter the result was by dialing up or down on the Flash Exposure Compensation setting.

I also had to aim the light. In the photo above, it’s pretty easy to see that I was just learning how to deal with this technique. It appears that I was holding the light too low, which resulted in some less than ideal shadows on the petals themselves.

The flash head will automatically widen or narrow the beam of light that it emits in order to cover the field of view that is seem though the lens. The flash was being told by the camera that the focal length of the lens was set to 43mm, so the flash was auto-zooming it’s head to create the relatively narrow beam of light to cover the area that would be seen through a 43mm (86mm equivalent) lens would see. The flash unit had no way of knowing that it was not mounted into the hot shoe on top of the camera, though. I changed the setting on the flash unit to manual zoom and changed it to a much wider beam of light by changing the zoom setting to 25mm (50mm equivalent). That gave a much softer bounced light off of the FlashBender.

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This is two-handed photography. I was following a technique where Robin Wong recently described how he does his fabulous macro photography of insects in Malaysia. (Be sure to click that link to see how he does this.) Robin appears to trigger his flash wirelessly, and although the flash that I was using could also be triggered wirelessly, I was using the Canon OC-E3 cord – the camera and flash don’t know that there is a cord between them.

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With the FlashBender mounted onto the flash unit, I was bouncing the flash off of it. Just like bouncing flash off of a ceiling or a wall, which makes the light source (the flash) much larger than when aiming the flash head directly at the subject. While I do have the Large size FlashBenders, I was using the much smaller Small size. Unfolded, the Small unit measures 10” x 7” (254mm x 178mm). I had the ends curled in, but not to the point that I had made a tube, or snoot, out of it.

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I mention that for two reasons. First, the size of the white surface that I was bouncing the light off of was still about 6″ x 7″ (152mm x 178mm). When I brought it in close to the flower or bee that I was photographing, the relative size of my light was getting to be huge in comparison to the object that I was photographing. That results in very soft shadows. And remember, these photos were all taken in direct sunlight, in the middle of the day!

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The second reason that I mentioned the shape and the closeness of the FlashBender is this: The shutter speed of 1/200th of a second was not what was responsible for stopping the motion of the very busy honey bee. Instead, it was the much shorter duration of the burst of light emitted by the flash that was freezing his motion. Since I was underexposing the photo between -0.7 and -1.3 stops in most of the photos, the flash only had to add enough light the bring the exposure up by about 1 stop.

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Since that flash unit was being held very close to my subject, it didn’t really have to put out much more than just a puff of light. The less light it puts out, the less time the flash tube is emitting light, and therefore the duration of the burst of light was probably only about 1/1000th of a second. That is what was freezing the motion of the very busy bees and the constantly wagging flowers!

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Again, the only two adjustments that I was making were the aperture (to get me to an underexposed ambient light exposure) and the Flash Exposure Compensation (to manually influence the automated TTL operation of the flash unit). Sometimes I significantly underexposed the background, and sometimes not so much. Sometimes I wanted the flash to put out more light, and sometimes I didn’t.

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In the photo above, I had my flash unit underneath the flower, and was bouncing the light up onto the underside of it. You can see the black Velcro edge of my FlashBender in the lower right corner of the photo. I could have removed that in Lightroom (or Photoshop), but then I wouldn’t be able to show you this “trick”!

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In this photo, this blossom was on the end of a very long, spindly stalk, and it was wagging back and forth very wildly. It was coming toward me, and then going away from me. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 was having a terrible time of trying to focus on it. I just stood there and ripped off a dozen or so photos of it, and hoped that at least one of them would look sharp on my computer monitor. (Two of them did.) So, even with an electronic flash to help freeze motion, the dang camera has to focus on what you want it to!

I also had another new to me experience with this camera while shooting this way. I could see the results of my underexposure in real time by looking into the electronic viewfinder. Obviously that made everything pretty dark, so at times it was difficult to see what was going to be in focus. But, the instant that I would push the shutter button down halfway, two things would happen. First, the image in the electronic viewfinder would instantly get amplified and lit-up by the electronics to what would appear to be a normal exposure, and then (if you were lucky) you would see the focus lock indicator blink (which I had fixed to the center of the screen).

I don’t normally have the Autofocus Assist Beam turned on, but it was about this time on this walk that I decided to turn it on. It didn’t seem to help much… with my setting the autofocus to Single Shot Autofocus, it just didn’t help much with quickly moving objects – and with a macro lens, everything seems to move rather quickly. I seemed to have the most trouble focusing on red colored flowers.

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Just to play around with the flash in a different way, I set it to FP TTL Auto mode, which is what Canon calls High Speed Sync flash. The photo above was taken with a shutter speed of 1/320th of a second, and the next one was taken with a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second.

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In FP TTL Auto mode, the flash unit turns into a very high frequency strobe light. I don’t know how fast the Olympus FL-600R pulses, but the Canon 580EX II pulses at 30,000 times a second! That effectively turns your little flash unit into a strobe that starts flashing before the first curtain of the shutter opens, and continues flashing until after the second curtain has completely closed. Of course, the flash unit cannot pump out its maximum intensity of light while it is doing that, but like I said before, I had my light so close to my subject that I just needed it to put out a puff of light anyway.

You can tell in the previous photo that my light was just outside of the left side of the photo. The Inverse Square Law is definitely in effect here!

That last photo, the flower of the plumbago plant was just 6 inches (15cm) off of the ground. This is when I was really glad that I didn’t have to get down on my knees, bend over and look through the viewfinder while holding the camera in my right hand and the flash in my left hand. Instead, I tilted the rear LCD (it’s really an OLED panel) up, let the camera strap around my neck hold the camera at the desired height, and used my right thumb on the shutter button.

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OK, so the FP TTL Auto works just fine, but I didn’t really need to use it, so I set the shutter speed back down to 1/200th of a second. As the photo above shows, even at f/11, and on a Four-Thirds sensor, you just don’t get a lot of Depth of Field when using a macro lens at close range.

The one thing that I really need to improve upon is my composition. Almost all of these photos have the subject in the center of the frame. In self-defense, there are two factors that also lead me down this monotonous path…. First, I set my autofocus point to be the one in the center of the  frame. If I didn’t do that, the camera would tend to focus on the part of the flower that was closest to the camera. In general that would be OK, but that makes it virtually impossible to focus on a bee, or other object that is not the front object. The second factor is that these flowers, and bees, were almost in constant motion. It doesn’t take much movement, when shooting at these close distances, to have 1/3 or more of the flower end up being cut-off as the wind quickly accelerates the flower from where it just was. There were several flowers that I tried to photograph that afternoon, where I was not successful in getting the entire flower into the picture – so centered in the frame is what I usually walked away with.

Now this next photo is unusual to me. A cloud came over us, dimming amount of sunlight. To get my ambient exposure down to about -1 stop, the aperture was f/10 and the shutter was a relatively long 1/50th of a second.

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As soon as I took the photo, the review image that shows up in the electronic viewfinder showed violet flower in an electric, iridescent color. I don’t know if the slower shutter speed had any effect on that or not. It seems that the white balance contribution between the ambient and the flash was the same as all of the other photos, but something was making the flash turn these flowers into something psychedelic. Maybe I had spent too much time photographing the poppies down the street….

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This is the yellow flower of the prickly pear cactus, and they look like they are going to put on a spectacular showing this year. Cactus flowers are easy to photograph, simply because they don’t move very much when the wind blows!

Not knowing what the heck was going on with the colors (all of a sudden), I bounced the shutter speed back up to 1/250th of a second to capture this trio of lantanas.

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I was almost home, so just to get familiar with the modes of the flash, I set the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second (aperture f/6.3), and had the flash in FP Auto TTL mode for this single lantana bloom.

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It is worth repeating this: these photos were taken in the middle of the day, under what is considered to be extremely hard lighting conditions. Look again at the photo directly above, and see if you can spot the hard edge of the shadows. I can’t.

I was pleased to see that I had found a way to freeze the motion of the wagging flowers, without having to take a dozen photos and the toss out the blurry ones later. As long as the camera would achieve focus and then snap the shutter before the flower (or bee) had moved out of the range of focus (depth of field), the flash would freeze them in place for me.

I would like to mention that this was the very first time that I have ever wished that I had a more substantial grip area on the camera. I’m sure it was because I had been shooting for nearly two hours by holding the camera in only my right hand. My hand was beginning to get stiff and somewhat sore. I had been holding the camera with two fingers and a thumb – while my third finger was on the shutter button and my pinky finger was curled into my palm underneath the camera body.

Next time I will attach my Really Right Stuff BOEM5 base plate for the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Maybe it will be enough extra area to hold on to.

Just three houses from my home, I spotted this “camo lizard” on my neighbor’s driveway. I popped my lens out of its macro mode zoomed it all the way out to 50mm and walked as close as I thought I could get to this little guy and snapped this photo. Even the soft sound of the shutter on this mirrorless camera was all that it took to have him scurry off to safety under their car.

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The last thing that I would like to mention here is about my batteries. I took over 340 photos in under 2 hours. All but about 5 of those photos were flash photos. I never had to change the battery in my camera, or the AA batteries in the FL-600R flash unit. I never would have predicted that! It just goes to prove that you can overpower the mid-day sun with little puffs of light.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

Samantha and the Fireplace

20130102_Samantha_and_Fire_004This photo shows how things have been around here lately! This is our fat cat, Samantha, who loves to sleep in front of the fireplace – especially when there is a football game on the TV. Since it has been rather cold and dreary outside, and football is in high gear right now, Samantha is spending a lot of time in front of the fireplace.

Since I did my last post, on the photowalk around the University of Texas campus, I have done some photography, but not the sort that I can put up on my blog.

On Sunday, December 16th, Barb and I met friends for brunch at Threadgill’s Restaurant (the one where the old Armadillo World Headquarters was located) and then went over to the Palmer Events Center, where they had the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar going on. The Austin Lounge Lizards were playing, and we got there early enough for front row seats. I had my Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and my three fast prime lenses with me. I took dozens of low-light, high ISO photos with the aperture opened wider than f/2.0.

I would be thrilled to show them to you, but I don’t have the band’s permission. I didn’t see any “No Photography” signs, but we did pay a $5 admission to get into the Bazaar, so that means it wasn’t considered a public place. Since I’m not sure about the copyright issues, I’ll be safe and pass up this opportunity to show you the best photos that I took during the entire month of December.  Maybe I’ll send a few of the photos to the band and then ask their permission to show them here….. maybe.

20121216_Armadillo_Christmas_Bazaar_111On December 19th, I had a paying event to photography Bonnie B.’s 70th birthday party. It was in a meeting room at the UT Club, which is located within the east side of the DKR – Texas Memorial Stadium. I went there a few days in advance to see what sort of lighting I would have to deal with. Fortunately the 10′ – 12′ (<3m) ceiling was white, so I decided to use my Canon 5D Mark II with a single on-camera Canon 580EX II flash, which I attached an ExpoImaging small FlashBender to. I simply put the camera into Manual mode, set the shutter to 1/200 th of a second, the aperture to f/5.6, put the flash into TTL mode and added +2/3 stop of flash exposure compensation.  I simply bounced the flash off of that white ceiling. The results were great, and my post processing effort was minimal. Again, photos that I’m proud of, but don’t feel comfortable showing here, since I was paid to take these photographs for Bonnie.

20121219_Bonnie_Bain_70th_BDay_018Reminder: You can always view any photo at a larger size by just clicking on it. You will then need to use your browser’s “Back Button” to return to my story.

20121219_Bonnie_Bain_70th_BDay_058On Christmas Eve, my Dad and Rita (my step-Mom) came over for lunch and to play cards. This is the standard “line ‘em up in front of the fireplace and take the shot before we eat” type of family snapshot. No flash, just try to get everyone to stand still for 1/4 of a second…

20121224_Christmas_Eve_004Here’s one of just Dad and Rita. I was using my Canon 5D Mark II that day. Again, no flash.

20121224_Christmas_Eve_006Christmas Day was spent over at my Mom’s house, where my cousin Mike and his wife, Janel, joined us. Mom’s house is pretty dark inside. I didn’t want to use a flash, so even though the temperature was a pretty chilly 42 degrees (5.5 C) and breezy, I got everyone to go out onto her shaded porch and got everyone to act like they were not cold for about 3 minutes.

20121225_Christmas_002During the weekend after Christmas, Barb and I drove up to her sister’s house in Coppell, which is a suburb northwest of Dallas. That’s a 3 and a half hour drive for us. Barb’s brother and his family drove in from Sugarland, which is a suburb south of Houston.

The sky was overcast, which would have been great lighting for a family photo, but it was very cool outside, and everyone asked me to see if I could find a spot indoors. Since I was travelling, I had brought my Olympus OM-D E-M5. In my bag I also had a single Olympus FL-600R flash unit, and I also had a small FlashBender.

I arranged a couple of chairs in the middle of Lisa’s kitchen floor and put the camera on top of my little Gitzo tripod and positioned it so that I could shoot over the top of her counter. I put the camera in manual mode, and I put the small flash unit into manual mode as well. It took about 7 trial photos to get the right amount of mix of ambient light and flash that I wanted.

20121228_Christmas_in_Coppell_002I was bouncing the flash off of the ceiling. This little flash puts out much less light than the Canon 580EX II is capable of. Even so, I dialed down the output of the FL-600R to 1/10th of full power.

After that, I simply told each person where I wanted them to sit, stand, or kneel.

20121228_Christmas_in_Coppell_005I’m not entirely thrilled with the results, but given the circumstances it isn’t all that bad. The flash appears to be a little too “hot” on some of the people in the front, and just adequate on the people in the back.

Now, this isn’t entirely appropriate, but a scene like this strongly reminds me of Robert Earl Keen’s song “Merrry Chistmas from the Family”. If you’ve never heard it before, then you should definitely take a few minutes to check it out!

So, as you can see, I have been staying pretty active with my photography. It’s just not the type of photography that would be of much interest to anyone outside of my family. The photo of Samantha in front of the fireplace seems very appropriate to me right now. We’re just snuggled into a comfortable spot during the darkest days of the winter right now.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

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Lighting Set-up for Portraits at Curves

This post describes the equipment in my portable “portrait studio” that I set-up at the neighborhood Curves facility for their 10th anniversary celebration. To walk through it, I’m simply going to describe what you see in the photo above, and the crappy iPhone photo below.

Reminder: You can always view any photo at a larger size by just clicking on it. You will then need to use your browser’s “Back Button” to return to my story.

Before I get into the equipment, I want to draw your attention to the far right side of both of the photos. There, affixed to the large mirror on the wall are several of the photos that I had taken for the Curves Member of the Month photos back in 2011. If you look close, you may even spot the two portraits of Barb that I showed at the beginning of my previous blog post.

OK, now on to the lighting. As you can see, my whale gray backdrop was positioned halfway in front of a floor-to-ceiling window that was allowing lots of morning sunlight to come streaming in. To make my backdrop more opaque, I simply draped a king-size bed sheet behind the backdrop, and used 4 red handled A-clamps to hold it in position.

The facility was brightly lit with probably 100 banks of fluorescent lights in the ceiling. The sunlight was streaming in from the window on the left. I wanted to use my small portable Canon 580EX II Speedlites to illuminate the people in the portraits. To complicate things further, all three of those light sources emitted a different color (spectrum) of light. How the heck was I going to make these women look good under such conditions?

To start, I put up a round reflector on the left side of the photos above, to block the sunlight from coming in from the window and directly hitting the model, who would be sitting on the posing stool that you see in the middle of the set-up. The round reflector is a Creative Light 5-in-1 Reflector, which is 47″ in diameter. I put the black cover on this reflector facing the posing stool. I used a Paul C. Buff RBH2566 reflector kit mounting arm to attach the reflector to a standard light stand. I have wasted good money on three other such arms in the past, and this one is not only the best that I have used, it is also the least expensive!

As for the fluorescent lights, I borrowed the step ladder at Curves, and climbed up to disable the two light banks that were directly overhead of the set.

At this point, the ambient light was what it was, and I was just going to have to deal with it. The way that I deal with it, is to “kill it in the camera”. What the heck is that?

I wanted to underexpose any picture that would be taken with just the ambient lighting. To make the digital sensor of my Canon 5D Mark II the least sensitive to light, I set the ISO to 100, which is where this camera also captures the most detail that it is capable of. The “sync speed” of this camera is 1/200th of a second, so that is the fastest shutter speed that I would be allowed to use later, after I turned on my flashes.

With the ISO at 100, and the shutter speed a 1/200th of a second, the only thing left that I could use to control the exposure was the aperture (the diameter of the opening in the lens that light passes through).   So before I turned on my flash units, I took a few test shots, where I adjusted the aperture down to a small enough opening that any photos that I took would be severely underexposed – effectively killing the ambient light “in the camera”.

The photo above was taken with the aperture set at f/ 5.6. Notice that this is the same photo at the very top of this post – except in this photo, the flashes were not turned on. You can see the white bars of the exercise equipment, and you can see the gold star balloon on the right in both versions of the photo. So, even without the flash, there was still some of the fluorescent lighting that was going to contribute to the exposure, but it wasn’t going to be very significant.

I could have made the aperture smaller by setting it to f/ 8 or even f/11, but that would mean than when I did turn on my flashes, they would have to put out twice (from f/5.6 to f/8) or even 4 times (from f/5.6 to f/11) the amount of light. That would drain the 4 AA batteries in each flash unit twice, or 4 times, as fast.  By  leaving the aperture at f/5.6, I was expecting to get at least 100 flashes before I would have to change the batteries.

So those were my camera settings: ISO 100, shutter at 1/200th of a second, and the aperture at f/5.6. About the only other thing to mention about the camera itself is that I put the camera into “mirror lock-up mode”, and I use an electronic cable release to trip the shutter.

I put the camera on the tripod, and put a Speedlite in Master Mode into the hot shoe of the camera. This Master was set so that it would communicate and send commands to the 4 Slave units I was going to use, but this Master would not put out any light that would contribute to the actual exposure. I pointed the Speedlite up towards the white ceiling, so that it could bounce its control pulses of lights to the Slave Speedlites that I was about to use.

The lens that I chose to use that day is a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens. This is not a high end Canon “L” lens (L for luxury), but it is still a wickedly sharp lens. The 85mm lens on a full-frame sensor camera, like the Canon 5D Mark II is a allowed me to back up about 6 to 8 feet (2 to 3 meters) from the models, and that’s about all the space that I had to work with before I would be bumping up to the exercise equipment.

At that distance, with that 85mm lens set to an aperture of f/5.6, I was going to have to pay careful attention to what the camera would focus on. I wanted to use autofocus, because even though I was going to have them sit on the posing stool, I was expecting that they would be swiveling back and forth as we experimented with more than one pose. I was going to be dealing with less than 1 foot (~10cm) of depth of field (front to back in focus). If the camera focused on the front of the model’s blouse, her eyes could be 6 inches behind that, and therefore not very sharp – and her earrings would certainly be getting blurry. I also knew that I would have to really be paying attention to this later in the day when I had a mother and daughter couple shot, and that the last time slot was the largest group of the day – a family of 4.

Since the camera and lens were set-up, the next thing that I worked on was the background lighting. I wanted the gray backdrop to be lit consistently (the same for every shot) and I wanted a vignette effect (a darkening of the corners of the photo) to surround the head of the model.

I put a Canon 580EX II Speedlite on a small light stand (the right-most stand in the two set-up shots above). I put it into what Syl Arena calls “free agent” mode. This is a mode that allows you to shoot with both E-TTL and Manual control of Speedlites at the same time. This is all described on page 148 of Syl’s book “Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites”.

To get the vignette effect, I first put a large ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBenders onto the Speedlite and bent it into a shape that I thought would create somewhat of a spotlight onto the backdrop, directly behind the model. I never could get the somewhat uniform spotlight effect that I was after, and so after about 10 minutes of trying, I took off the FlashBender, and replaced it with a ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Honeycomb Grid unit.

I used the 45 degree honeycomb grid, and the spotlight pattern was easily obtained!  All I needed to do now was to dial in the amount of light (intensity) that this Speedlite would put out each and every time it fired.

Even though it is a trial-and-error effort, because I was using a whale gray backdrop, it is a very simply process. I would simply put the camera on the tripod, and take a photo of the backdrop. Since it was gray, I wanted a large spike on the histogram (on the back of the camera) to be positioned a little to the right of the center of the graph. (I wanted it to be brighter than 18% gray.) So I would take a photo, look at the histogram, walk over to the flash and dial up or dial down its power setting, and go back to the camera and take another photo, look at the histogram, rinse, and repeat. It only took a couple of shots to determine that I wanted this Speedlite set to 1/4 power.

Normally a well lit backdrop is sufficient to separate your model from the backdrop, but I like to do a little more. I like to use a “hair light”. This is seen in the two set-up photos above as the little light on the end of a small “boom arm” that puts it high, near the middle of the backdrop. The stand that I use, is a black Manfrotto 420B Combi Boom Stand, which Syl Arena had recommended. You definitely need to use a sandbag as a counterweight to the boom arm, and I also add another one at the base, since the entire rig begins to get rather top-heavy.

I also put this hair light Speedlite into the “free agent” mode, and attach the ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Honeycomb Grid to it, using the 45 degree honeycomb. I used the same method described above to get the power level set the way I want. I used a small step stool so that I could change the power lever on the back of the Speedlite, without changing the position of the light (which can be very frustrating). I asked Barb to be my model, and had her sit on the posing stool while I took several photos to try and dial in the power setting of the hair light.

In the photo above, the hair light was still a little too “hot”. You can also see how the light on the backdrop is creating a big spot of light centered behind her, and that it is creating the vignette effect (darkening of the corners). This photo is actually out of sequence, (because I had my main and fill lights also firing, which I will describe shortly), but I use it here to support my story.

With the camera in Manual mode, and the background and hair lights in free agent mode, they were not going to change – ever (well, not until the batteries in the flashes were run down).

Now it was time to set-up the main and fill lights. These two lights are “inside” of the two black umbrellas that you see to either side of the posing stool in the two set-up shots above. Instead of shooting the flashes through a white umbrella, I like to bounce the light off of the inside of the umbrella. I use a somewhat unusual 45″ Bowens Silver and White umbrella.

If I put these lights into manual mode, I could put them in position then use my light meter and dial in the amount of flash output they would need to produce to get a correct exposure with my camera’s aperture set at f/5.6. There are two problems with this, though.

The first problem is that my Sekonic L-358 light meter doesn’t work well as a flash meter with my Canon 580EX IIs. When the master Speedlite sends out the “pre-flash” burst of light, it triggers the flash meter, instead of the “real flash” that occurs just milliseconds later.

OK, so I could simply dial in the exposure by having Barb sit on the posing stool a bit longer and adjusting the power of these two lights (which can be done from the back of the camera – unlike the free agent mode slaves) – but there is another problem. I tend to move my main and fill lights around a lot. It seems like I’m either trying to avoid getting their reflections in the model’s eye glasses, or I want to bring them further up or farther back, depending on the features that I want to accentuate (or diminish) on the model’s face.

For these reasons, I like to keep my Speedlites in E-TTL mode for these two lights. I always set the lighting on the main light to be twice as bright as the fill light (a 2:1 ratio). Sometimes to “fine tune” that lighting ratio, I’ll simply move the fill light closer or further away from the model (than the distance of the main light to the model).

OK, so now with all 5 Speedlites on and operational, I had Barb sit on the posing stool, and I made my final adjustments to the lights. I dialed down the power of the hair light to its final setting of 1/8 -0.7 power. (That’s a funky way that Canon uses to describe a power setting that is 2/3rds of the way from 1/8 power to 1/16 power.) Her blond hair no longer seemed to be “blown out” at this power level. I also added +2/3 stop of Flash Exposure Compensation, which only effected the main and fill lights, which were in E-TTL mode.

I photographed one lady late in the morning, and two more in the early afternoon. During the late afternoon, during a two hour downtime, I recharged the batteries in my Speedlites. After that, as I was turning everything back on and making sure that my settings were all “good to go” for the two groups that were coming in, I sat on the posing stool and talked Barb through how to capture this portrait of myself.

The main light was to the camera left (my right side), and was set to twice as bright as the fill light, which was to the camera right (my left side). You can see a hint of the hair light on the top of my head – it really lights up my gray hairs – but more importantly, that hair light also lights up the top of my shoulders, which separates my gray shirt from that whale gray backdrop. Lastly, you can also see that the light on the backdrop is fairly well centered behind me, and is producing a nice vignette in the upper corners of the portrait.

Now I realize that my efforts are very “amateurish” as compared to any experienced and talented professional, such as Kirk Tuck. But I’m sharing what I have already learned, as maybe it will help someone less experienced than I am. I realize that I didn’t mention anything about posing, and I suppose that it’s because admittedly, that is something that I still need to learn more about.

I have heard back from all 5 of the ladies that I took portraits of, and they all seemed to be very pleased with the photos that they have seen. I am choosing not to include the photos of my clients in my blog posts, but I will soon include them in the “Studio Portraits” section of my “Photo Gallery” that you can find under my large banner at the top of my blog home page.

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Portrait Setup at Curves

Almost two years ago, in February 2011, while taking a Lighting and Composition photography class in The University of Texas Informal Classes, one of our homework assignments was to take a portrait of someone. I was less than excited, as I wasn’t interested in photographing people, especially in a true portrait style. Since I hadn’t been interested in this type of photography, I hadn’t given any serious attention on how to go about doing it “properly”.

A couple of years earlier, I believe in the spring of 2008, while visiting my local camera store, Precision Camera, where I had purchased my first Digital SLR  camera, as I was leaving the store, I stopped to look at the books on display near the door. One in particular caught my attention. It was entitled “Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography” by Kirk Tuck.

When I got home, I eagerly started to read this book. Right after the Table of Contents, was an “About the Author” section. It started by saying “Kirk Tuck attended the University of Texas where he dabbled in electrical engineering and English literature before accepting a position as a specialist lecturer teaching photography in the University of Texas College of Fine Arts”.

I found that fascinating. I got my electrical engineering degree from the University of Texas, and I was very absorbed in my hobby of photography, so I wondered if I would ever meet this Kirk Tuck guy.

Anyway, his book was my very first introduction to any sort of lighting techniques for photography. He seemed to know what he was writing about, but as my first exposure to this subject, I didn’t quite grasp it all. Besides, Kirk was advocating using old Nikon flash units and operating them in manual mode, and I had a single Canon 580EX Speedlite at that time.

As a result, I ended up purchasing a very simple lighting kit for about $100 from B&H Photo that included two small light stands and a couple of small umbrellas. I also bought a new model Canon 580EX II Speedlite.

A couple of years later, I read a book entitled “The Moment It Clicks: Photography Secrets from One of the World’s Top Shooters” by Joe McNally. This was a fascinating book to me, as it described the “behind the scenes” stories of how he had captured the portraits of many famous celebrities. He wasn’t taking these portraits in a studio. He was going to where the celebrities were and taking their portraits on location wherever they were.

Joe included descriptions of the equipment that he used for the photos, but most of what he described was a foreign language to me. As I read through the book, I jotted down a rather lengthy list of strange lights (Elinchrom Rangers), stands (C-Stands), lighting modifiers such as reflectors, flags, softboxes, octobanks, etc. At the time, I was very impressed at how Joe made it sound to use all of this “portable” equipment.

Sometime after that, while photographing some of Barb’s Silpada Jewelry display cases, I dropped my older Canon 580EX Speedlite, and broke a switch that Precision Camera wanted $250 to repair. I simply replaced it with the newer 580EX II, to match my other Speedlite.

Back to February, 2011.

For my class assignment, I also remembered seeing somewhere that Scott Kelby recommended putting the subject (model) near a north-facing window for indirect lighting and then bringing a white bounce card in close to the opposite side of the model to fill in the shadows a bit. So I asked Barb to be my model, and I took her picture using the technique that Scott Kelby had described. To make it a bit more visually interesting, I positioned my tripod so that our fireplace was about 8 feet (a little less than 3 meters) behind her, and I had it lit, even though it wasn’t really cold outside.

I cropped the photo a little, and submitted it as my homework assignment. It is the photo shown above. I don’t remember why, but I also took one with her standing. I think it was to show off her new figure, after she (and I) had successfully shed a lot of unwanted weight.

As it turns out, a few months later, the Curves facility on Oak Knoll Rd. in northwest Austin where Barb had been working out had named her their very first “Member of the Month”. That was in recognition of her recent weight loss, which was achieved by working out at their facility and following their dietary guidelines. They asked if she had a picture of herself that they could put on their bulletin board to go along with the Member of the Month announcement. I printed the two photos above on letter size paper and that’s what they used for the display.

When the next month came around, and they had a announced their 2nd Member of the Month, they asked if that lady had a few photos of herself that they could use. I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but someone at Curves asked Barb if I would take the photos of the new Member of the Month.

I was “interested” but also terrified. I had never been asked to photograph anyone for money. My initial reaction was very hesitant. I was not a professional photographer! Photography was my hobby. Besides, in most of my photography up until this point, I waited patiently for as many people as possible to get out of the scene before I would take the picture…

After a week of discussing it with Barb, I finally agreed, but I wouldn’t do it for free. If they were willing to pay me for the on-the-job training, I would do it for $35 – and if they didn’t like the results they wouldn’t have to pay me anything.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to use Scott Kelby’s technique, and I would be using my two Canon 580EX Speedlites, and the couple of umbrellas on light stands that I had bought from B&H Photo a few years before.

As it turns out, it worked out just fine, and I had a lot of fun doing it, but I knew that I needed to learn how to do this better. I went to Amazon.com and searched for books that would explain more about the Canon 580EX II Speedlites than the Canon owner’s manual did.

I ended-up finding one specific book that significantly helped educate me in revising my technique and guiding me in acquiring a few more pieces of equipment and how to use it. That book was “Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites” by Syl Arena.

I ended up doing the portraits for the next 10 Curves Member of the Month. Some of those months had groups, or Members of the Month, which meant to me that I had to learn to photograph groups of 2, 6, and even 11 ladies in a group. I added more Speedlites, a few key modifier for shaping the light coming from those Speedlites, as well as a few larger umbrellas.

Evidently, during the year, several of the women who worked out at Curves (members that probably would never be chosen as the Member of the Month) had asked about the photos on the bulletin board – and about the photographer that had taken them.

In November 2011, this Curves facility was celebrating their 9th anniversary, and they were inviting a few local merchants to come and participate in their celebration. For some reason they asked if I would come in and take portraits.

I agreed, and I realized that if I was going to be charging a dozen or so people for taking their portraits, that legally I should also be collecting sales tax. On November 1, 2011 I went to the appropriate state government office and registered myself as an official photography business with The State of Texas. I also obtained two insurance policies; one for insuring my equipment, and another as small business general liability policy.

And so on November 16th, 2011, I photographed portraits of over a dozen individuals, couples, and families that had signed-up for a 20 minute time slot at the Curves anniversary event. During that day I took several very good portraits, and a few not-so-good portraits. I found that I really enjoyed engaging with the people that I was photographing, and that 20 minutes was really rushing things.

I let people sign-up for different levels of print package deals. No one purchased the deluxe package, a few bought the middle package, and the majority purchased the least expensive ($35) package.

During the next few weeks, I ended-up spending numerous hours retouching multiple poses of each person, and ended up printing one or two 8” x 10” photos, and multiple 6” x 4” photos of the numerous poses. I enjoyed the work, and learned a lot, but financially it didn’t make any sense. I earned more money in one day at my engineering job than I did for approximately 60 hours of effort in this endeavor.

Zoom ahead one year.

This November (2012), the same Curves facility was celebrating their 10th anniversary, and they asked me if I was interested in participating again this year. After thinking about it for over a week, I finally agreed, but said that I would need to do a few things differently this time. Randa, the owner, was quite agreeable.

And so it was, just a few weeks ago, on Election Day (Tuesday, November 6th), I took the day off of work so that I could take portraits of those who has signed up for 7 of the 25-minute time slots. The evening before, Barb and I went to Curves to look at the sign-up sheet, and I was pleased to see that 5 would be of individuals, 1 was going to be a mother & daughter couple, and one was going to be a mother and her two teenage children.

That was great news to me, as I find it much easier to set up my lighting equipment for individuals and couples. I decided to “go light” and use my Speedlites instead of my Einstein studio flash units.

Here is a crappy iPhone behind the scenes (BTS) that I took in the early afternoon, during a couple hours of time that no one had signed up for.

You can see that I had put up my whale gray muslin backdrop in front of a large window, and there was a lot of light coming in from the left side. The insides of the Curves facility are brightly lit with dozens of fluorescent lights. I was using small Canon Speedlites. All of these light sources emit different spectrum (color) of light.

Here is another photo that I took from further back using the same camera that was on top of the tripod in the previous photo.

I am going to attempt to describe some of the equipment that you see in the previous two photo, and how I used that equipment, in my next blog post. (There is a piece of exercise equipment in the foreground in the photo above that is not photography related.)

So how did it go?  I’ll let you judge that later. But in the meantime, here is a photo that I talked Barb through to take a photo of me later in the afternoon, as I was making sure that I had my lights adjusted how I wanted them, about an hour before the busy evening sessions were to begin.

I know, I know…. A gray shirt with a gray background isn’t very appealing, but I didn’t have any intention of having my own portrait taken when I got dressed that morning.

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CowParade Calendar – October – Blazing Bovine

Today is October 1st, and if you have my 2012 CowParade Austin calendar, you probably flipped over to October, saw a very colorful cow, and headed on over to my blog site to see what the story is with the cow named Blazing Bovine, which was painted by Doug Naugle.

If you “dig” this cow, then you might also enjoy visiting Doug’s web site, which has the URL of “Dig Doug’s Art” in it, or you might want to check out his Facebook page.

On Doug’s web site, he says this about his art: “With my acrylic paintings, I like to create patterns out of chaotic lines while letting my subconscious be the guiding force. With bold bright colors and stark contrast the images buzz with electricity. The outcome of my work is like lightning striking the canvas and electrifying the soul.”

Blazing Bovine was on public display here in Austin, TX during August through October 2011 on the west side of South Congress Avenue, between Gibson St. and Elizabeth St. at Guero’s Taco Bar.

Unfortunately, I really don’t have much of a story to tell about my experience in photographing this cow.

This was the last one of eleven cows that Dad and I photographed on the morning of September 10, 2011. As a result, we didn’t get to Blazing Bovine until 11:30 AM, and the cloudless Texas sky had the direct, harsh sunlight doing some serious blazing of its own.

Reminder: You can always view any photo at a larger size by just clicking on it. You will then need to use your browser’s “Back Button” to return to my story.

This cow was positioned near the edge of a very busy sidewalk, with parked cars very close to it. The photo above was taken from the west side, and so this is the shady side of the cow. I did use my Canon 580EX II flash on top of my Canon 5D Mark II camera to take that photo. You can clearly see how close the parked cars were to it.

I was determined to get a photo of both sides of this cow, so I struggled around a bit and finally got my tripod positioned down between the parked cars and took this next photo of the sunny side of the cow.

Even though I was still very close to this 8 foot long cow, I did manage to back-up between the parked cars far enough to get my 24-105mm f/4.0 lens zoomed out to 55mm. (I was trying to avoid the perspective distortion that occurs from being too close – and using a wide anlge lens.)

The photo above was the one that I used for my calendar. Why did this cow end up as “Miss October”? Because the color scheme seemed to be a Halloween color scheme, with the strong blacks and brilliant orange.

In the bright sunlight, it is difficult to really see the picture on the LCD on the back of the camera, so just in case my first photo wasn’t exposed optimally, I went back to the other side of the cow. I dialed the flash exposure compensation down by -2/3 of a stop, and took this photo.

There is nothing appealing with having all of those parked vehicles immediately behind this (or any) cow, so I just made sure to get a photo of the plaque before we packed up our equipment and headed home for lunch.

We had only been there for 10 minutes, and I had spent the majority of that time simply waiting for people to get out of my way. Even then I never really got what I thought was a “great” photo of Blazing Bovine, but in the end, I did think that the photo that I took of the sunny side of the cow was worthy of being in my CowParade Austin 2012 calendar.

Thank you for reading my blog. I you would like to leave a comment, just click in the “Leave a Reply” link immediately below, or on the cartoonish “word bubble” way back up at the top of the post. Thanks!

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Welcome to Beatrice, Nebraska

On Sunday, September 2, 2012, Barb and I drove to northern Oklahoma to spend the week with my Dad, his brother, and his four sisters that all met in the little town of Beatrice, Nebraska (which they grew up near). It was on Monday, which was the Labor Day holiday here in the U.S. when we finally made it to Nebraska. This short post just shows only 8 of my favorite photos from that day.

The Mid-West of the United States has experienced a severe drought this year, and we passed through several regions that looked like the entire crops were a failure, but when we stopped to take the photo above at the state line, it was sprinkling lightly.

The vast majority of the photos that I took on this trip were of my family members, but I will keep those to an absolute minimum here on my blog.

Beatrice, Nebraska is right at 780 miles (1255 km) from our home in Austin, Texas and the drive took us just under 13 hours total.

Here is a photo of my Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Jerry’s back yard. The lush, soft, green grass seems so much nicer than what is grown in yards back home in Texas. Love those tall trees, too!

Reminder: You can always view any photo at a larger size by just clicking on it. You will then need to use your browser’s “Back Button” to return to my story.

Aunt Jeanette seemed awfully proud and amused that they had brought the old outhouse from their previous home to their new home, which they moved into about a year and a half ago. I just had to get a few photos of that old outhouse…

I was just trying to get an semi-interesting composition of the wagon wheel with the outhouse, when this little squirrel decided that he needed to check out what I was up to!

I’m not sure when Aunt Jeanette acquired an old outhouse to be used as a yard decoration, but it had to have been at least 40 years ago, because they had it in their old yard when we used to visit them when I was just a kid in school.

Aunt Jeanette does a nice job of keeping the old outhouse decorated. And no, it has never been used for its original purpose (at least not for 50 years).

After my Dad’s brother, Uncle Jack, took us to dinner at a local restaurant, we went by to visit his new home at the Assisted Living Center.

Uncle Jack had moved there in the last couple of years, and so none of us had seen it yet. I took more than a dozen photos inside, and it is a very nice place. I have decided to only show this one of my Dad, Robert (on the left) and his only brother, Jack (on the right). Jack is 88 years old now!

For the photo above, I used my Olympus FL-600R flash unit on top of my Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera, and pivoted the head upward so that the light would bounce off of the relatively low white ceiling.

As we were leaving Uncle Jack’s place, and still standing around in the parking lot, I noticed that the sun was setting. I jogged across the parking lot to hastily snap this Sunflower Sunset photo. It seemed to symbolize the American Midwest as a very fitting close to a fun day of travelling.