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Photos of My New Computer Build

It’s been just over 2 weeks since my last post, in which I mentioned that I was waiting for the delivery person to bring my new computer that I had ordered. It arrived very soon after that, and everything seemed to be just what I had ordered. Since I am an Electrical Engineer, with my specialization being in computer systems, I didn’t order just any computer. No, there would be some assembly required…

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While I intend to keep this blog as “my adventures in photography”, this particular blog will reveal some of my engineering nerdy-ness. While I put together my new computer, I did take some photos of the process. I used my little Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera on top of my big Gitzo tripod. For the background, I just used some reflectors and diffusion panels that I have. For the lighting, I sometimes used natural light coming through the window, but since I took these photos after work in the evening, I mainly used two Fotodiox LED panels on a couple of small light stands.

I will try to keep the geeky-ness to a minimum. I’m not going to explain why I chose the components that purchased. I’m just going to show them to you, and tell you what they are.

Before I get into the photos showing how I put this computer together, I just want to vent my frustration for a minute about the current state of the personal computer market, and Microsoft Windows in particular.

*** Rant Mode Now Turned On

Computer companies like Dell and HP are selling far fewer desktops and laptop computers than they did last year, and the year before that. All of the analysts say it is because everyone is moving to tablets and high end cell phones.

I think that’s a small part of it, but doesn’t explain the huge reduction in sales (of laptops and desktops). Tablets and high end cell phones are great for checking your email, surfing the web, killing time seeing what your “friends” are up to on Facebook, etc. Companies need real computers for office workers to do real work on. People like me that enjoy photography, might want a tablet to show off a portfolio of photos on, but I need a real computer to process the RAW files that my cameras produce. I damn sure don’t want to do that on a 10″ screen with some cute little apps running on a processor that simply cannot compete with what’s available on a desktop (but maybe a low-end laptop).

Furthermore, the last fricking thing that I am interested in is a touchscreen-based monitor on my desktop (Windows 8). For crying out loud, I’ve got this beautiful EIZO 24″ monitor; and why would I want to replace it with something just so I could smudge it all up with my finger oil? I don’t get it, and I suspect that millions of others do not, and will not get it, either. I think THAT’S why people are not buying Windows-based desktops and laptops. Even though millions of people would like to have a new computer, they are either going to just keep using their same old computer and wait to see if things get better with Windows 9 (Windows 8.1 isn’t gonna do it), or they are switching to Apple computers. In the meantime, they’ll just buy a tablet or a new high-end Android smart phone or a new iPhone.

*** Rant Mode Now Turned Off

I could get along without a new computer, but Barb is still using a 7 1/2 year old Dell XPS-400 running Windows XP. About 2 years ago I replaced the hard drives and the battery on her motherboard, so it could probably go another 3 or 4 years. However, Microsoft will be “end of life”ing Windows XP next April 8th, which is about 6 months from now. So in the end I decided to get myself a new high-end computer and to move her over to my current computer.

I like Windows 7 a lot, especially the 64-bit version. You can still purchase a new computer with Windows 7 installed on it, but most likely it is built with last year’s components. That means that you probably would not get any USB 3.0 ports, and the SATA ports that transfer data to and from your hard drive (or SSD) would be SATA II (3 Gb/s) instead of the new SATA III (6 Gb/s).

I decided to build myself a high-end computer with new, modern components, and put a 4 year old operating system onto it (Windows 7 first came out in October of 2009).

Let me just say that the total cost of all of the components (including a new $100 mechanical keyboard and $80 mouse which I didn’t really have to have) AND the Windows 7 64-bit installation disk set me back right at $2300. That’s about what an entry-level Mac Pro would cost. I have nothing against just buying a Mac Pro but I don’t think you can “hot rod” a Mac Pro like I’ll be doing to this computer. (That $2300 is about what I paid for my original 128kB Macintosh back in 1984.)

The mid-size tower computer case in the photo above is the CoolerMaster RC-692A-KKN5. It comes with 2 USB 3.0 and 2 USB 2.0 ports on the front, and also comes with 3 fans installed.

That case was the first component to be delivered, which was on a Friday afternoon. You can’t do much computer building with just the case (other than check for shipping damage), so it just sat until I got home from work on Monday.

The first thing that I did was to get the whole “air flow” strategy implemented by moving two of the fans that CoolerMaster installed, and adding a Noctua NF-S12AFLX and three NF-A14 FLX fans.

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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.

In the photo above, if you look carefully, you should see 5 of the 6 fans that I installed into the case. This is a view looking up from the bottom into the case. The 120mm fan on the back (left side of the photo) and the two 140mm fans in the top are installed so that they blow air out of the case. We all know that hot air rises, and these fans are at the top of the case, so their purpose is to exhaust the hot air out of the case.

At the very bottom, hidden behind the mesh dust filter, is another 140mm fan, which sucks air into the case from underneath, and blows this cool air up to the top.

That compartment in the lower right corner is the “hard drive cage”, which can hold up to 6 disk drives. On the right side of that cage, which is really the lower front of the unit, the clear acrylic 140mm fan that CoolerMaster provided sucks air in from the front and through the hard drive cage, keeping those disk drives cool. On the left side of that hard drive cage is a black colored 120mm fan (with all of the colored wires pass behind) that “pulls” air from the hard drive cage into the middle of the case. (Later on I replaced that black fan with an extra Noctua 120mm fan that I had left over from my last computer build.)

Not shown in this, or any of the photos in this post is a 7th case fan. It is mounted in the left side panel (the large side closest to you), which sucks cool air into the case and blows it right onto the video card.

So the “air flow strategy” is to suck in cooler air from the front, left side, and the bottom, and then blow it out of the top and the back of the case. There is a little arrow on all of these fans indicating which way the air will move through it when it is spinning – double-check to make sure none are in backwards!

Yes, there are 7 fans installed in this case, but you should not think that this computer will sound like a hover craft when it is running! These larger 140mm fans do not spin at high RPMs. They top out at 1200 RPM. Only the two fans pushing and pulling air through the hard drive cage will be spinning at full speed all of the time. The other 5 fans that you see here (plus the two that I will add later to the CPU heatsink) have their speed controlled by the motherboard. They spin about half speed at room temp, and gently ramp up to full speed when the CPU reaches temperatures that should only occur when stress-testing the new computer build. Also, all of the tan and reddish-brown Noctua fans are attached to the case using some very pliable silicon anti-vibration pads, instead of using screws.

Here’s a look at the case standing upright, with the front and side panels removed.

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Now that all of the case fans have been installed, it’s time to mount the power supply into the case.

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That’s a Corsair HX850 power supply. What’s nice about it is that it is a “modular” power supply. That means that the unused cables can simply be unplugged from the unit. That makes a world of difference when you get to the end of the build and you have to find someplace to put all of those unused cables.

Oh yea, that power supply also has a fan inside of it. It pulls air in from under the computer, and exhausts it out of the back. That fan doesn’t run at all, until the power supply is putting out about 35% of its rated load of 850 Watts (so it may not turn on at all when the computer is sitting around in idle mode). That brings our total “fan count” up to 8.

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That’s a look at the right side of the unit, with the power supply cables at the bottom, the colored cables coming from the front control panel, and a couple of the fan cables.  Without a “modular” power supply, there would be more than twice the number of power supply cables that you see here. Of course I later needed to use several power supply cables that are not shown here to provide power to my disk drives, DVD burners, and the two fans that move air though the hard drive cage.

Computer cases are needed to hold everything together, and to provide good air flow. But they certainly are not sexy. Motherboards are sexy!

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The motherboard that I chose for this build is an ASUS Maximus VI Hero board.

Motherboards are where all of the action happens. This is the socket where the CPU (for Central Processor Unit, microprocessor, or just processor) will live.

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Let’s open that socket and have a look.

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This socket holds what Intel calls an LGA-1150 package. This is the new package that Intel is putting all of its 4th Generation Intel Core Processors (code named “Haswell”) into. Here is the microprocessor that I purchased.

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Most people have heard of Intel i3, i5, and i7 processors. They generally know that i5 is better than i3, and that i7 is better than i5. They don’t know why they are better… they just are. (If you are interested to find out, click here.) When someone tells me that they bought a new computer and mention that it has an Intel i7 processor in it, I always reply with “Cool! Which one?”. Of course this just gets a blank stare. They don’t know because the computer manufacturers do not tell them. There are literally dozens of Intel i7 processors out there.

All you really need to know is that the Intel i7-4770K is currently the highest performance Quad-Core processor that you or I can purchase. (There are two Hex-Core processors that are faster, though.) That little “K” on the end of the part number is immensely significant. Intel “unlocked” the clock multipliers on the i5-4670K and the i7-4770K processors. This allows these two models to be operated above the rated speeds of 3.4 GHz and 3.5 GHz, respectively. This is called “overclocking” the processor.

I fully intended to do find out just how far I could overclock my new computer, and then eventually back off a bit for everyday use. Everything that I have read in my research tells me that an air-cooled, really good i7-4770K should be able to run at 4.8 GHz, while the real dogs can only get up to 4.2 or 4.3 GHz. I thought that even if I purchased a real dog, that I would be very happy with 4.2 GHz!

Here’s that shiny new microprocessor in its new home.

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If you increase the clock rate of a CPU just a little bit, it will run faster. Turn up the clocks a little bit more and it will probably have insufficient voltage to run at that speed and will crash. Upping the voltage will get you up and running again at this higher speed, but the CPU will also be generating more heat. Your cooling solution must be able to dissipate this heat. Even at the rated speed (3.5GHz for this one), no CPU will run without a heatsink attached to it. Here are the brackets installed that my heatsink will later attach to.

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The real art of overclocking is to learn just how little of a voltage increase is needed to allow you to run at the next faster rate. The least amount of voltage provided, without crashing due to voltage starvation, will also generate the least amount of heat. To insure that you are not going to crash due to voltage starvation, you must have your processor running the biggest, baddest programs that you can find. There are lots of stress test programs out there. I am using both AIDA64 and an old version of Prime95 (v25.11).

Even as you continue bumping up the voltage just enough to allow you to run faster, you will eventually come to a point where you can no longer keep the temperature under control. Intel recommends that you keep the internal CPU temperatures below 85 degrees Celsius (185 F), but it will operate without damage up to 100 degrees C (boiling water!). World records are set by overclockers who use liquid nitrogen to keep their CPUs cool enough to operate. Serious overclockers use liquid cooling, much like the radiator in your car keeps the engine cool. I’m in the 3rd class of overclockers… I choose to use a simple heatsink and fan combination. Here’s my heatsink.

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That’s the Noctua NH-U14S heatsink, which comes with a NF-A15 fan.

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That fan pushes cool air into the heatsink. The NH-U14S also comes with a spare set of fan clips and extra thick anti-vibration pads for mounting a 2nd NF-A15 fan to the heatsink.

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That second fan pulls air from the heatsink. This push-pull configuration is just like what I did with the two fans mounted to the hard drive cage. (The fan count is now up to 10.)

Time to add the 16 GB of memory to the motherboard.

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Those two red and black memory modules (called DIMMs for Dual In-line Memory Modules) are a Corsair Vengeance Pro 16 GB kit, which consists of two 8 GB DIMMs. They operate a DDR3-1866 speeds, which is really 933 MHz.

That’s all of the preparation work needed for the motherboard. Time to sit back and admire our work so far!

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Just to put this motherboard in someplace safe, let’s put it into the computer case.

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Here you can see the 3 exhaust fans at the top of the case near the CPU heatsink and its two fans.

I prepared the case by mounting all of the fans and power supply on Monday evening (with Monday Night Football) going on. I prepared the motherboard the next evening. I took Wednesday evening off, and came back on Thursday evening to wrap up all of this hardware assembling.

The first item to add was the video card. This one is made by EVGA, and it is the GTX-760 SuperClocked model.

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Notice that this video card has two fans of its own, and that brings the total fan count up to 12. (That’s the final fan!) They pull in cool air from the bottom area of the case, and about half of that is exhausted out the back, and the other half just gets blown back out into the case. That doesn’t fit right in with the otherwise pristine “air flow strategy”, but it’s not all that bad.

Next I installed two ASUS DRW-24B1ST DVD Burners.

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Why two of them? Just habit, I guess. Anyway, they are just $20 each, so why not? (Photo is backlit by natural light coming in from my office window.)

That’s all that I need to do up front, so it’s time to put the front panel onto the case.

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Swinging around to the left side, I opened up the latching covers for the hard drive cage. This case will hold 6 disk drive units. The top latching cover is completely removed, but the other 5 are swung open to have a look inside.

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The top and bottom drive bays are good place to tuck in the middle portions of cables that are longer than I needed them to be, and you can see that’s what I’ve done. The next to the bottom bay is where I put my SSD (Solid State Drive). It’s a Samsung 840 Pro Series 256 GB drive. Since it generates very little heat, and since hot air rises, that’s why it’s at the bottom.

Above that, in drive bays 3 and 5, I installed two Western Digital Caviar Black 1 TB hard disk drives. I like the Caviar Black series of hard drives, as they come with a 5 year warranty.

I didn’t put these two drives in adjacent bays, simply to help with the air flow between them. You can clearly see how they are positioned relative to the little 120mm pull (exhaust) fan that mounted to the hard drive cage.

The DVD Burners and all three disk need their own SATA data cable, and they all needed to be connected to the power supply. All of those connections have already been made, and if you look closely (and know what you are looking for), you can see small portions of those black cables.

That is a pretty clean, uncluttered interior for a computer case! It needs to be that way to keep the air flow as smooth as possible.

Where are the other portions of these cables? Well they are hidden around back, on the right side of the case.

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The loose cables that you see here are all that remain to be connected. These are the front panel items like the power and reset buttons, the 2 USB 3.0 ports, the two USB 2.0 ports, and the headphone and microphone jacks.

Let’s hook all of that stuff up, and here’s the finished wire management behind the right side panel.

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At this point, there’s nothing left to do but to put the side panels back on!

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Remember that clear acrylic fan that pushed the cool air into the hard drive cage? Well it comes with a blue LED to light it up.

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Fortunately, there is also a switch on the front panel that can turn that off…

That’s really all of the photos that I took showing how I built my new computer. For the only remaining hardware to add, I went to our storage closet and got out an old Dell monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. It’s all software after this point. Install the Windows 7 64-bit OS and install all the latest drivers for this motherboard and video card. For anyone not interested in overclocking their CPU, then they are done at this point.

But I am interested in overclocking, so my next steps were to install some specialized programs that allow me to really stress the system, and to monitor its voltages and temperatures while I’m doing it.

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This phase of the project can take several hours to get it roughly where you want it. It can also take up to a couple of weeks, if you really want to fine tune everything, and really make sure that it is stable and a computer that you can always trust.  Right now I’m just over a week into it.

So what are my results so far? Was it worth all of those fans and giant heatsink?  I’m very happy right now! I have kept excellent records as I worked, and I can now pretty accurately determine where my voltage vs. frequency vs. temperature envelopes are. I have created and saved several UEFI (aka BIOS) sets of settings that instantly get me to stable overclocks of 4.5 GHz and 4.4 GHz. I never could get anything stable at 4.6 GHz, without using very high voltages and not running heavy loads. I originally thought that I would be very happy with 4.2 GHz, but I haven’t run this computer that slow in over a week now. I’m sure that I will end up at either 4.4 GHz or 4.3 GHz and then just leave it there for the next 6 or 7 years.

I have no idea if anyone out there enjoyed this blog post or not. It’s not technical enough for an overclockers discussion, and it’s way too geeky for my photography friends. What it is though, is the combination of my two passions!

Thanks for stopping by today!

Cruise Ship Folded Towel Art

It has taken me a lot longer to get into the mood to put up this post than I originally thought that it would. I finished going through the 805 photos that I took on our Bahamas Cruise vacation, and cut it down to the 475 that I decided were keepers. But then I got all tied up in researching everything and anything that an engineer “needs to know” before ordering his next computer. I finally ordered everything this afternoon, so now I can finally turn my attention back to getting this blog post up!

Here is one of the first photos that I took on that vacation. This is our cabin on the Carnival Magic – our home for the next 7 days.

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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.

I took that photo right after we unpacked our luggage and neatly put everything away into the storage areas that they provided within our cabin. Barb had some time to relax with her Sudoku puzzles, and I got to play with my Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera.

I only show that photo above to show the setting for the rest of the photos in this post. The rest of the photos were taken on the bed. Now get your mind out of the gutter!  This is a “family oriented” blog (or at least G-Rated)…

Living on a cruise ship is very much like living in a hotel or motel. While you are out and about during the day, people come into your room and clean the place up. They make the bed, change your towels, empty the trash, and in the evening, they always leave a folded towel on your bed.

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Now they do not fold the towels that they leave on your bed the same way that you or I fold our towels. No sirree…

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When I went on my first cruise, which was our honeymoon in 2000, the room steward did this same thing. I really thought that we had a really special room steward! But now that we have been on our 10th cruise in 13 years, I can only say that EVERY room steward on a cruise ship does this. It must be a mandatory requirement for their job.

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I brought my Gitzo GT1542T Traveller tripod with me on this vacation, but it never left our cabin. I only used it for the photos that I took of these folded towel works of art. All of these photos required a shutter speed of between 1/4 of a second up to 1.6 seconds in duration, so the tripod was a must.

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This next photo was the only one (besides the opening photo showing our cabin) that was taken during daylight hours, where diffused sunlight was coming in from the windows, backlighting my subject.

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The room steward left this one for us in the afternoon, while we were Segway riding along the beach in Nassau, Bahamas. Later that evening, he left this one for us.

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The main consideration to be taken into account when photographing white towels is to remember to override the camera’s light meter, and overexpose from what it suggests. I added +2/3 to +1 stop of exposure. When I used Aperture Priority mode, I just added some Exposure Compensation. When I used Manual mode, I just “overexposed” from what the meter indicated.

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If I didn’t add the extra exposure, the towels would have turned out gray in the photos. If I had added too much exposure, the entire white towel would have turned completely white, and you would not be able to see the texture in the towel.

I wanted to share these photos with you, but didn’t want to spend the hours to write up a big story to go along with them. So, I’m keeping this short and sweet!

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Now when will that UPS delivery guy get here with my new computer?

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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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.

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.

Refinishing the Deck

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This blog post doesn’t have any artistic photography in it. If that’s what you came for, this will seem pretty amateurish. After putting up my “6 month time lapse for our Bradford Pear tree” last week, I thought I would do something similar this time, too. This is a simple sequence of photos showing our 12 year old deck on the back of our house.

The photo shown above and the next photo were both taken on April 7, 2013.

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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.

The supporting structure is still in great shape, but many of the wooden planks that we walk on are decaying. We have already replaced several of them over the past 3 or 4 years, but now these band-aid fixes were simply not keeping up. The crew that comes out to mow our yard have really done one heck of a number on the base of the stairs when they use their string trimmers. We have never liked that the base of the wooden stairs were in direct contact with the ground (even though we know that termites shouldn’t bother treated wood).

I contacted two companies and asked them to come out and assess the situation and to quote on the repair/restoration of the deck. In the end, we chose to go with Austex Fence and Deck.

The guys from Austex came out on April 22, and tore down everything that we had chosen to replace, except for the stairs (which would come down later).

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They were back the next day, April 23rd to add more joists. They were needed simply because the composite decking material that we had chosen would not span the distance between the existing joists, without sagging over time.

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By the way, all of the photos in this post, except for the last one were taken by myself while hand holding my Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera with the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens.

After a delay in having the material delivered, the crew arrived on the morning of April 25th and started putting down the new composite material on the floor. This next photo was taken just 5 minutes before we left to go on the Tour of the Circuit of The Americas race track.

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Later that afternoon, after getting home from the Tour of the Circuit of The Americas race track, we saw that they had torn down the old stairs and had them loaded into the bed of their pickup truck.

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Not only that, they had assembled the new stairs, and at our request had them on a raised concrete footing. Let the yard guys and their string trimmers have fun with that!

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The crew even had much of the railing up, but it wasn’t completely tied-in to the structure yet.

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They also had not yet assembled the new stairs from our backdoor down to the deck, so I just took this photo while standing in the open doorway.

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They finished the assembly the next day, but it was about a week later before the “stain guy” came out to stain the railings and the sides of the stairs.

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I took these two photos on May 6th.

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On May 11th, Barb and I went to the nursery and purchased several potted plants for her to finish decorating the deck with. I “helped” by making sure that the plants chosen would also make interesting macro photos later on, when it gets blazing hot here in Austin. :-)

Everything was finally finished, just in time for Mother’s Day on May 12th!

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That photo above was the first photo that I have taken with my Canon 5D Mark II camera since Christmas Day, 2012. I really should use that camera more often… it takes excellent quality of photos.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

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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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.

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!

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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.