Thursday, December 16, 2010

Canon 60D Built-in Master Flash Quick Test

One of the reasons I chose to get a 60D was that its built-in popup flash can act as a wireless TTL master - enabling it to control other, off-camera Canon and canon-compatible speedlights.

While this is old news for Nikon shooters, this is a new capability for Canon DSLRs. The only other Canon DSLR that has this is the 7D.

The cool thing here is that you don't have to waste a 550EX, 580EX, or 580EXII atop your camera to control your off-camera flashes. OK, OK - the 60D's built-in flash isn't as powerful or as versatile master as one of the dedicated flashes: it can only control 2 groups of flashes, instead of three, and its lower power means less working range, particularly outdoors.

However, it has enough juice for a lot of uses, it's fast to set up and it's always there.

I finally got a chance to put it through some paces, under a reasonably trying set of conditions: outdoors, sunset time under heavy, leaden skies, in a light rain. Hey, it was my only chance to score some shots of the lovely ice covered branches and pine needles from the day's wintery mix.

Ice Drop

So, the basic set up is the 60D's builtin flash acting as master, in ratio to a slaved Canon 550EX on a stand. The 550 has a Full CTO gel on it, to make it nice and orange, like late, late afternoon light, and a Honl snoot, to narrow the beam. The narrowed beam does two things: it keeps light from spraying all over the background, giving me a clean black background, and it keeps the light from spraying into the lens causing flares, ghosts and loss of contrast.

Iced Buds

I set the ratio between the slave and the master to 8:1, which mean the 550EX was pumping out 3x the light the on camera unit was. I also set the flash exposure compensation to +1 ev, to compensate for the shiny reflective ice. The stand was placed so the 550 would be side lighting or partially rim lighting the subject, creating texture and highlights and shadows, while the built-in flash provided fill in light to ensure detail.

Ice V

It worked pretty well, I think. :-)

Some more notes - I shot these at ISO 200, with a Canon 100mm F/2.8 L IS Macro lens, at F/11 or F/16. The extremely close range, 1.3 feet or so, was the only reason I got away with such high apertures. The 60D's built in flash doesn't have the juice to even fill in F/16 at standard portrait distances.

The 60D's built-in flash's method of autofocus assist is to pulse flash. It's annoying, but it was effective, especially once I took the lens hood off the 100 Macro.

So, was this better than slapping another 550EX on top of my 60D? Well, for this use, yes. I was working in way close, and the built-in flash actually has a better angle for on axis fill in this situation that 550EX standing tall in the hot shoe would have had.

It also made for a lighter, less bulky camera unit - less protruding things to bump and shake branches attached to the subject. As it was, I had to be careful where I place myself. A big, on-camera flash would have made that even more challenging.

Going all-TTL for this was also a huge help. I normally go all manual, but in the rain, with the light quickly dying, it was a blessing not to be fiddling the with power settings on the 550EX as I moved it around. I was able to work faster than usual, and that maximized my picture making time.

Monday, December 6, 2010

2011 Morning Light Calendars Update

It's not too late to buy calendars for Christmas, Avalailable in 11x17 and 13.5 x 19 sizes from my Lulu store.

Through Dec, 26, use coupon code: FLURRY to save 25% off your order of 1-9 calendars.

Individual prints of the images in the calendar are for sale at my SmugMug site.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Belly Dancer

Strobist: Speedlight through a Honl Traveller 8 softbox, clamped to the wall, camera right, blue-gelled speedlight atop a speaker cabinet, camera left, red-gelled speedlight clamped to a doorsill across the room, camera left and way back.

Yes, Virginia, you can light a small performance venue with 4 speedlights, all firing at less than full power. The lighting for this photo:

I've got a speedlight with a 1/4 CTO gel firing through a Honl Traveller 8 softbox, clamped to the wall, camera right and behind me. There's a second speedlight with a 1/4 CTO gel through a Lumiquest Softbox III next the one in the Traveller, but it's oriented to light the secondary dancer floor to the left of the stage, in front of the musicians.

I placed blue-gelled speedlight atop a speaker cabinet, camera left and behind the dancer.

Finally, there's a red-gelled speedlight clamped to a doorsill across the room, camera left and way back.

I tripped everything with my RF-602 radio triggers. Well, not everything. The batteries in one receiver died, and I forgot pack spares. So the red-gelled flash was working optical slave mode all night.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Night Pier, with Surf

The Surfside Beach Pier (South Carolina) stands stoically as the the tide rolls in.

Looking at it in real life, you'd probably think it looked neat, but not this epic. That's because your eyes are so much better than a camera sensor. Let's walk through the differences visible here.

1) The lights looked white in real life, not green.

Our eyes color correct a lot of light sources to white - they even correct mixed light sources, such as daylight mixed with tungsten, to white. Camera sensors can't. As far the sensor is concerned, there's 1 color temperature (expressed in degrees Kelvin or Kelvins) that's neutral, and any light source that's not that color ain't white (usually bluer, oranger, yellower or greener), despite what your eyes tell you.

Here's a color temperature chart that lays it out nicely. Note that fluorescent lights generally come with a side of green tint that isn't reflected in that chart.

Here, those lights on the pier, except for that red one at the end, are pumping out light that looks green to a camera set for daylight color balance. I could have corrected this by changing my color balance to fluorescent on the camera, or on the computer (in post), but didn't. I saw what was happening as I reviewed the photos I was taking as I moved up the beach towards the pier, and liked the effect.

2) The sea had surf with distinct waves, not the smooth, misty, mystical water you see in the photo.

Pier lights seem bright to our eyes, but to the camera sensor, they are damn dim. This is a 2 minute exposure at f/11, ISO 100. That's approximately 15 stops less light than on a sunny afternoon. In other words, those pier lights are 1/32,768th as bright as the noon sun.

Two minutes is far too long a shutter speed to stop any sort of motion. Thus, the waves disappear, their white tops recorded only as white mist clinging to the timbers of the pier. Likewise, the water goes smooth and silky.

3) In person, it doesn't seem so immense - it's big, but not the way it looks here.

The last divergence from what the eye perceives is the result of the compressed perspective offered by the 100mm lens. Since the 60D has a 1.6 crop factor, I effectively shot this with a 160mm lens. That telephoto perspective allowed me to stack the support timbers visually to create an illusion of massiveness.

Obviously, I used a tripod to get this shot. I also used a remote shutter release and mirror lockup to ensure that there was no shake at all.

In post, I struggled to get this where I wanted. Straight out of the camera, the tonal range was extremely compressed. Expanding it to make the black night sky black, without losing all the detail in the support, and keeping everything looking coherent, was a real challenge.

I ended up turning to HDREfex Pro make it happen. Yes, I used HDR software with a single exposure, so I could access the tone mapping tools. It did exactly what I wanted, and a little more. It punched up the green color more than I had intended, but I decided I really liked the look.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Look Ma, No Flash!

Sunlight Streaks

Nothing but afternoon light broken up by a wooden structure, a beautiful woman, and 100mm lens at f/3.2, really tight.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Cheap UV/Protective Filters Aren't Worth It

Lots of photographers recommend putting a UV/Skylight filter on every lens you have, to protect the front element from blowing sand, salt, and other mishaps.

This isn't bad advice. After all, once you damage that front element enough, you have to replace the lens, which will cost you a lot more than replacing even the most expensive UV filter. There are plenty of stories out there about thousand dollar lenses being saved by their "protective" UV filters.

What gets overlooked too often, though, is that putting cheap glass in front of your good lens can noticeably degrade the image quality.

The image below demonstrates the deleterious effects of a cheap filter on image quality. Lens is a Tokina 12-24mm f/4, at 12mm, on a Canon 60D. The scene was chose not for its artistic merit, but because it featured the sun just outside the field of view of the lens, a situation that, especially with wide-angle lens, is a recipe for lens flare.

I shot first with the $17 UV filter on, and then with it off. For the second shot, I even changed the perspective slightly, in the direction of the sun, creating an even tougher flare test. The difference between the two photos is striking.

Why Cheap UV Filters Aren't Worth It

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Canon 60D First Impressions from a 50D user

My Canon 60D arrived Friday night. I spent some time with it Friday and Saturday, and here are some quick impressions, and photos.

Overall, it handles well, and for someone coming from a 50D, it take minimal getting used to. I'm mostly impressed. The early review is below.

The Good

The image quality is fantastic. At ISO 3200 and 6400, it's far,far better than my 50D.

It's pretty damn good at lower ISOs as well.

Autofocus is speedy and accurate. Not better than my 50D when it's working (50D is currently in the shop with AF issues), but not worse. It's not a 7D, but that's why it costs less. So, far it's done OK in low light.

As a side note,I was really worried about the lack of Micro Focus Adjustment- the ability to adjust the camera/lens focusing to correct for consistent front or back focusing errors. My 50D has it, and I had to do it all of my telephotos. So far, the 60D has been spot on, although I haven't taken it out with the 300 yet. It did prove to me that both my 50mm f/1.8 lenses have issues, so it's time to replace them with something else.

I have large hands and AF on button fits perfectly under my right thumb.

The articulated LCD is a huge improvement. It's far easier to use for making setting adjustments when the camera is on a tripod, and either low, or high, or turned vertical.

Best of all, you can close it so the screen faces the camera. Not only does this protect it from nose grease, it makes me work faster by curbing my tendency to chimp after every shot.

The metering system has doe a fantastic job with everything I've thrown at it so far, including backlighting and crappy compact fluorescent lighting.

Auto-bracketing now can cover plus/minus 3 stops, not just two.

The Bad

Canon changed the remote shutter switch to the same one used on the Rebel series. So I have to go buy a new remote shutter release, as the two that I have, and that worked with the 10D, 30D and 50D, will not work with the 60D.

Even worse, one of those releases is the expensive TC80N3 - Canon's intervalometer model for time lapse and extremely long shutter speed photography. And guess what Canon doesn't make? That's right, an intervalometer for use with the Digital Rebel series.

While I realize that Canon needs to differentiate between the 7D and the 60D, I figured the 7D's much better AF, faster frame rate and higher end build quality were enough. I don't think it's ridiculous to anticipate that buyers of a $1,000 camera would expect to be able to do time lapse photography with it.

Auto-bracketing still limited to only 3 exposures ( 1 under, 1 on target, 1 over ). For HDR, I want 5.

The Takes Getting Used To

The joystick from the back of the 50D has been changed into an 8-way rocker switch in the middle of the command dial on the back of the camera. The command dial itself is smaller and further down the back than on the 10D, 30D, 50D.

This works and it doesn't. It mostly works for setting the AF point, but when working through the menus, for example, turning mirror lockup on and off, it's easy to jump to the wrong place. Since I'm not used to the command dial's revised location yet, I find myself searching for it with my thumb. I assume that will improve with practice.

Annoyance that isn't Canon's Fault

I use Aperture to manage my photos. Apple hasn't updated Aperture to understand the 60D RAW files yet, and it even chokes trying to import them, so I've been forced into the following convoluted work flow:

1) Use Canon's Image Browser Utility to import the files from my SD card.

2) Use Adobe's DNG Converter to convert the RAW files into DNG format (yes, Adobe has updated DNG Converter, Adobe Camera RAW, and Lightroom 3 to read 60D RAW - go Adobe!).

3) Import the DNG files into Aperture.

Come on Apple, get with the program. (Update: Apple updated Aperture to read 60D RAW files shortly after I published this initially).

And now, some sample images:

ISO 800, Canon 100mm F/2.8 L IS Macro

ISO 100, Canon 100mm F/2.8 L IS Macro

Sunset Sweetgum Leaf

ISO 100, Canon 100mm F/2.8 L IS Macro

ISO 100, Tokina 12-24 F/4 (3 Shot HDR using autobracketing )

To really appreciate this shot, you have to view it large - larger than this layout allows.

Lonely Bush At Sunset

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Canon 60D - High ISO Noise Wow

As a 50D user, my first reaction to seeing these on my computer screen after the first round of test shots was: "Holy shit, that's amazing!"

I cannot think of a single example of my 50D's pics looking this good at ISO 3200 or 6400. In fact, if I have to go to 3200 with the 50D, I generally don't shoot. With the 60D, I think I can shoot at 3200 and even 6400.

You'll need to click on the image to pixel-peep, but here are a series of 100% crops of images in Adobe Camera Raw, with and without noise reduction applied. This way you can see the noise as it is straight from the camera, and then how nicely it cleans up.

Canon 60D High ISO Noise Example

These were all shot under compact fluorescent lighting that registers about the same as tungsten for color temperature. In other words, the type of lighting that screws with digital cameras. Well, at least it did with my 10D, 30D and 50D.

It's also the type of lighting that you'll curse when shooting indoor sports. I'm actually looking forward to trying the 60D out on some indoor tennis, and maybe even basketball and wrestling.

No comparison pics for the 50D because mine is in the shop.

More first impressions from my hands-on with my 60D tomorrow.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Red Veil

The Red Veil

Got a lot going on, so a meaty post will have to wait. But- photo!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Diffraction Action -Ours Go to f/32 - But So What?

Lens diffraction - in summary, as you stop down a lens, it slowly becomes less sharp, due to the smaller aperture causing light scatter. Generally, this only becomes noticeable out towards the aperture extremes, f/22 and above, sometime f/16. Before that, in general, other effects play a much greater role in image quality, so much so that lens diffraction is unnoticeable.

For example - a lens wide open, at its maximum aperture, will have the least diffraction. However, many, many lenses simply aren't sharp from corner-to-corner until they are stopped down 1 or two stops. The increase in image quality is usually so great that you can't even tell that you might have lost a hair of sharpness due to diffraction.

Here, however, I unintentionally created a demonstration of lens diffraction in action.

Both these photos were shot within minutes of each other, with identical settings, lens, post processing and so on. The only difference was the first was shot at f/16, and the second at f/32.

For the record: both images were shot with a Canon 300mm F/4 L IS lens on 64mm of stacked Rayqual extension tubs. Lit with a Canon 550 EX camera left, bare, at 1/4 power, triggered with a cheapo Chinese radio slave.

F/16 - click for huge size for pixel peeping

Dewy Flowers

F/32 - click for huge size for pixel peeping

Lens Diffraction Example

As you can see, the f/32 version has lost a lot of detail. It's not usable for printing. The lens diffraction effect more than eradicated any improvement in image quality based on depth-of-field.

And this is no cheapo lens. The glass in question is a Canon 300mm F/4 L IS lens - one of their very best models. It's extremely sharp. But after looking at the dramatic degradation in quality, I have to ask - why does it go f/32?

For even more info, you can see a good set of stop-by-stop photos showing lens diffraction in action in this article at Luminous Landscapes. A full technical explanation of lens diffraction is available here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

2011 Morning Light Calendars Now Available

Just got my proof copies of my 2011 Morning Light Photo Calendars, and they look sweet!

They make great gifts, for yourself and others. Get them here:

Also available, is my Water Calendar from last year, retooled with 2011 dates, for the millions who didn't get a chance to buy it last year. :-)

Through Nov. 30, try coupon code: PHOTOGIFT355 at checkout - it should save you 30% off your order.

Cover image time!

Standard Size Calendar (11x17)

Large Size Calendar (13.5x19)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Saber Coach

Saber Coach

The key light is Alien Bees 800, left, through a 32x48 softbox, 1/2 power. Right fill provided by another AB800, about 1/8 power, through a PCB White High-Output Beauty dish. Behind the subject to the left and right, are LumoPro 160s through Honl snoots, providing rim/separation light (1/4 power or 1/2 power).

The coach is standing front of a black muslin background. It had wrinkles, but good light control and the background blurring effects of being so tight with the 50mm lens made them disappear.

My cheap eBay background stands are losing their ability to hold things up, so I guess it's time replace them with something good.

Taken at the Mid-South Fencing Club in Durham, North Carolina.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Superman Heroes and Villains

Superman Heroes and Villains

Alien Bees 800 on 1/2 power to camera right and left, using the standard 7-inch reflector. Vagabond 300 provided the juice.

Two LumoPro 160's, 1/2 power ish, with 1/2 CTO gels behind the group for separation/rim.

Kryptonite glow added in post.

This is the back porch area of the downtown Hilton. There are several sets of stairs, which might have made for a better setting for this photo - except that there were no lights on and it was night. We shot here because there was a enough light from the streetlight peeking over the walls to allow the cosplayers to navigate around safely and a way to put people on multiple levels.

That light wasn't really enough for camera/lens combination focus well, so I had get my snake light out to spotlight the center characters in the formation. Because I was running off battery power, I couldn't afford to run the AB' modeling lights for the shoot.

I had umbrella's and such for the ABs, which would have allowed me to move the lights in closer and get a softer light quality. Unfortunately, it was a breezy night, and I was short on assistants and sandbags. To make up for it, the lights are pretty far back, and feathered across - camera left light aired at right side of formation, camera right at right side of formation.

I had one more speedlight with me, and I should have set it up to fill in the middle of the formation. It wasn't absolutely necessary here, but in some of the bigger groups shots, I really could have used some extra light in the middle because of the shadows thrown by the folks at the forward outer edges of the group.

Also, I learned a lesson about positioning people with mirrors on their chest. If you look at Steel - lower right, shiny silver guy with a big hammer, you see that it's hard to make out the 'S' on his chest. That's because it's practically a mirror, and it's reflecting the blond curls of the woman next to him. I should have faced him more outwards, to remove that reflection.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My Dragon*Con Set Up

I go to a fair amount of science fiction conventions. One of the things I do while there is shoot photos of what's going, usually of people in costume.

Last weekend I attended my first Dragon*Con. It was amazingly crowded and a target rich environment for a photographer.

Na'vi - Dragon*Con

Unfortunately, though the crowds made some of my normal convention tricks, such as carrying an umbrella or softlighter on a light stand around - like I did at ConCarolinas for the shot below - completely impractical.


I tried going with the shooting rig I've been using at school events, a 550EX on a flip bracket with an E-TTL cord. While it was better than straight on camera flash, it quickly became obvious that it was going to too heavy a rig to hang off my neck for hours at a time.

I also wanted more directionality and height to the light, and some way to fill in costume details in the lower parts of the body and the eyes and, especially in the areas of the convention where there were no handy low ceilings to bounce the flash. Extra height was important, as the short working distances necessitated wide angle glass and lots of semi-crouching to get photos non-distorted photos of folks from head to toe. As I got lower, so did the flash on the bracket, and the shadows stopped going where I wanted them.

My solution turned out to be ditching the bracket in favor of two flashes using Canon's Wireless E-TTL system. This, with the addition of a Honl gobo/bounce card and a Sto-Fen OmniBounce, and the occasional use of another person as a light stand, turned out to be a light, really flexible set up for convention photography.

I used it for indoor portraits with no bounceable ceiling:

Tonight We Drink 'Til We're Green

Indoors with a bounceable ceiling:

Outdoor portraits with a volunteer holding the main light:

Those Devil Eyes

Wide-angle outdoor portraits, with volunteer:

Batwoman and Riddler

Here's how it works:

One 550 EX is set up on the camera, with the omnibounce on it and angled up. This is the master flash, and in Canon land, it's in exposure group A. The omnibounce is there mostly to spew the communication prefashes around enough to ensure that slave gets activated.

The other 550 EX is set to slave move, and put in exposure group B. This is the main (key) light, and I generally held in my left hand, up and out, around a 45-degree angle. If there was a low, white ceiling, I put on on the Honl Gobo as a bounce card and bounced the flash off the ceiling. With no ceiling, I set the flash head to the 24mm setting and used it directly, either in hand, or by having a volunteer hold it for me. Quick note - getting your volunteers from among the companions of the person you're photographing is a good way to ensure you self-propelled light stand doesn't make off with your flash.

The ratio is set so that the main light (slave flash, group B) is pumping out more light than the on camera flash (master, group A). I usually went with a 4:1 or 6:1 ratio - the on-camera flash putting out 2 to 2.5 stops less than the main. This turns the on-camera flash into a weak, on-axis fill light that pulls out costume details and shadowy places in the face.

I used my camera in M mode, with shutter speed/aperture/ISO settings set to kill most or all of the ambient light indoors. Outdoors, I stayed in manual, but set the exposure to work with the ambient light.

The joy of this set up is the mobility of the main light. I'm right-handed, so it generally went left. But with a helper, it could go right, over just even more left, like here, where I'm using an assistant and bouncing the main light off the ceiling:

Gun Fairy - Bayonetta

The main light can also go more interesting, places, like the floor, where it can provide appropriately evil dramatic lighting for a group of villains:

Justa Bunch of Jokers

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sunday, August 22, 2010

First try with High Speed Sync & Wireless E-TTL

Nectar Time

It wasn't my goal to shoot butterflies. I was going to shoot high school girls volleyball.

Unfortunately, the online schedule lied to me about the location of the game I was going to shoot, leaving me 35 minutes away from the action 10 minutes after the scheduled game start.

Where I was, had butterflies. So I decided to do some experimenting with Canon's 'Wireless' E-TTL exposure system.

I say 'wireless' because usually wireless means radio waves. Canon's system uses coded light pulses. Cheaper, I guess, than adding a radio transmitters and receiver to the flash, and certainly free of government regulation, unlike radio waves. But line-of-sight wireless brings certain unique challenges, and outdoors it can be real pain.

E-TTL is Canon's name for through-the-lens flash metering. The quick-and-dirty is that the camera has flash fire a short preflash, reads the scene, and then tells the flash how much juice to put out when it actually takes the photo a split-second later. This is generally a good thing.

Lighting: Canon 550EX to camera left, using Canon wireless E-TTL and high speed sync. Exposure was set about 2 stops above ambient. Master flash on camera set to no exposure flash. Shutter speed set to 1/500th of a second.

The good: solid, consistent exposures, despite constantly changing subject to flash distances. Rapidly changing subject to flash distances are the sweet spot for E-TTL.

The bad: it was a bitch chasing down the butterflies and having to adjust the master flash to point enough towards the slave flash to trigger it. This one place where radio waves have it all over line-of-sight systems.

High speed sync allows the use shutter speeds beyond the nominal sync speed of the camera, but it kills the action stopping-power of the flash. It also reduces flash power, a fact that becomes important shortly.

I lost several shots to the combination of the breeze, the tight magnification, my own unsteadiness and the butterfly's movements. While 1/500th of a second may be a good base for stopping action, in this case I needed at least 1/1000 of a second.

Unfortunately, at 1/500th each shot was already a full dump from the speedlight. Going to 1/100th would have mean moving the speedlight even closer to the peripatetic butterfly, which was not going happen given that I was using a 300 mm at it's minimum focusing distance already.

However, when my other 550 gets back from the shop, I can set up two flashes on the stand, and that should get the power level up to where I can shoot 1/1000th.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Just a Little Extra Light

Mustache and Steampunk

I'm wandering the halls of the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) in Raleigh, North Carolina, when I come across this fellow in a remarkable leather steampunk outfit.

This part of NASFiC was happening in the Raleigh Convention Center, which meant huge windows letting in lots of light reflected from the sky. The good news was that I had a decent supply of soft light to work with: 160, f/2.8 or so @ ISO 400.

That big hat, however, shadowed his face, which also dulled his eyes and the light was so soft it had very little shape.

So, I added just a touch of flash to add shape to him, and some sparkle to his eyes. I had my flash on a small light stand, activated by a radio trigger, off to camera left, with a small (really small) Lumiquest softbox on it. I had the flash dialed way back, so that I was getting about 1 stop above ambient. I aimed the softbox in front of him, so he was lit more with the edge of the light coming out.

While I like this, in retrospect I see a couple of things I could have done differently. First, I think a half stop, instead of a full stop, over ambient would have been sufficient. Second, a softer light source such as a bigger softbox, or an shoot-through umbrella, would still have given me shape, but with less harsh shadows. That little softbox was just too small and too far away to soften the shadows much.

Another option would have been to use a ball head to allow me to flop the flash over into a vertical orientation, which would have allowed me to cover the subject with the flash physically a lot closer, which would have increased the softening effect of the little softbox.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Liven Up A Speech with an Off-Camera Flash

Eric Flint

Speeches are, visually speaking, boring. No matter how eloquent the speaker, it's still a guy speaking. Unless the speaker is incredibly dynamic, or the overall scene is wonderful, you're stuck trying to get something good out of a person speaking into a microphone, and likely hiding behind a podium.

So, there I am, trying to get something interesting out of Eric Flint's Guest of Honor session at the North American Science Fiction Convention. No podium, thank god, but basically it's just a guy sitting in front of a microphone talking. Eric's an interesting speaker, but he doesn't gesticulate wildly, or make funny faces when he speaks.

The stage lighting was 1/125, f/2.8 @ ISO 1600. If you shot him straight on, the background was OK, but if you moved around to the side to get angle that separated his face from the microphone, the backgrounds were absolute crap: piles of unused chairs, ladders and other equipment.

What to do? Flash to the rescue.

Since folks in the audience were popping away with their flashes from the front row, I figure no one would really notice one more, especially if it was tight and far away.

So I set up a a single Canon 550ex on a radio trigger on a light stand about 40 feet or more from the stage, well behind the audience. I put an 8-inch Honl snoot on it to control the spread and set the flash at 1/2 power. I placed the flash off to the side, so it would sculpt Eric's face if I shot him head on, and so it wouldn't catch the stage lighting supports and throw their shadow across his face.

That produced f/4 @ ISO 640, which on my Canon 50D produces much better images than ISO 1600. And when I moved around to the side, like in the shot about, it lit him dramatically and killed off that nasty background, giving me sweet, pure black.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

From the Meetup


Took this at the Triad Strobist Meetup earlier in the week. The event was a lot of fun, and I got to work with several models, ranging from experienced to novice. For someone who is still getting used to working with models (as opposed to capturing subjects in their environments), it was an invaluable learning experience.

One big lesson learned - take the time to move your radio triggers off the default frequency. We had serious cross triggering going on that cost me several good shots.

If you are in the Triad or Triangle areas of North Carolina, I highly recommend both the Triad and Triangle groups. If you live elsewhere, go hunting for a local group. There are Strobist groups all over the world.

You can see all the photos I'm posting from the event here. You can check out all the photos from all the photographers here.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Long Lens Love : Canon 300 F/4 L IS

Was it Something I Said?

There was a brief while, earlier this year, where I was completely without a lens longer than 200mm. I had sold my Sigma 100-300 F/4 (a fine lens) to help cover the cost of upgrading to a 50D. I figured I wasn't shooting a lot of sports, and little wildlife, so why have a big lens around? For special trips, renting is cheap, compared to buying.


And then, circumstances changed, and I found myself able to grab a Canon 300 F/4 L IS lens off eBay for a reasonable price.

And, as they say, "absence makes the heart grow fonder." I really did miss having a long lens around. That much became clear almost as soon as the 300 arrived. I began shooting the hell out of it.

The Lookout

Part of it is logistics. In my current favorite bag, the only way to fit both the 300 with its tripod collar and the 50D is with the lens on the camera. So, whenever I pull out my camera, there it is.

It also doesn't hurt that the new lens is 7 oz lighter than its predecessor. That weight difference helps keep it in my camera bag. Trust me, you schlep something around for several hours, and you start counting ounces.

Little Yellow Flowers .. with Bug

Finally, the image quality is superb. The lens is sharp wide open. Bokeh, or background smearing, is good, and it focuses close enough to be usable for flower and large (honey bee and up) insect photography. Color rendition is excellent. Focus is lightning fast.

As for IS, Image Stabilization, it works. You get 1-2 stops more leeway in handholding with IS on. I tend to turn IS when using it on a tripod, because the image shifts get annoying. That, however, is a problem with very concept of image stabilization, and not this particular lens.

Now, to see if I can work in some soccer shooting this fall...

Saturday, July 17, 2010


My Flickr photostream just crossed 100,000 views a few days ago. It's a good start. :-)

Water Lily

Sunday, February 14, 2010

50D RAW Processing Shootout 2: ISO 3200

As promised, here's the follow up to my previous post comparing RAW Processing from Aperture 2 (AP2), Aperture 3 (AP3), Digital Photo Professional (DPP), and Lightroom 3 Beta (LR3b).

Someone did ask about the newly-released Bibble 5. I haven't downloaded the trial version to play with yet, so it's not included.

This time, we'll be looking at 100% crops from this image, taken at ISO 3200 under some weird tungsten/compact fluorescent light.

RAW Shootout: Lady

As before, I simply opened the file in each program, and then exported the result of its default processing as a 16-bit TIFF file. In this case, that means no color correction was performed on the photos before export, so they are yellow.

I cropped out the same section of each file and put them into this one composite image to make it easy to see the differences between the noise and detail levels. The image is really big because I saved it at maximum quality when I converted to JPEG to preserve the chroma noise detail.

My conclusion - LR3b did the best, closely followed by AP3. The difference here is nowhere near as dramatic as it is with ISO 400 photo, but LR3b seems to do a slightly better job with the chroma noise while retaining more detail.

AP2 gets third place, because even though it doesn't deal well with the chroma noise, it does a good job preserving detail. DPP is last: it does a good job eliminating chroma noise, but is by far the worst for destroying detail.

RAW Shootout - Canon 50D ASA 3200, 100% Crop

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

50D RAW Processing Shootout: Aperture 2, Aperture 3, Digital Photo Professional, Lightroom 3 Beta

In my last post, I complained about how Aperture 2's processing of my Canon 50D's RAW files left in way too much chroma noise and how my hope that Aperture 3 would match or exceed the current champion, Lightroom 3 Beta, had been dashed.

I also promised examples, and here they are.

First up, this shot of jazz saxaphonist Russell McCray performing in a hotel bar.

RAW Shootout: Sax Player

Shot at ASA 400 with my Canon 50D and trusty 50 f/1.8 lens, lit by a single Canon 550EX strobe firing through a Honl snoot about 30 feet away from the stage, facing the sax player. The flash was triggered by a radio slave, which allowed me to move over to the side of the stage to shoot this photo. Not all places allow this sort of thing, but this one did.

At ASA 400, I expect to see a little luminance noise, but no chroma noise. In Aperture 2, I was seeing a lot of chroma noise - so much that I thought I might have to send my 50D in for warranty service.

And then I did a RAW processing shootout between Aperture 2 (AP2), Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) and Lightroom 3 beta (LR3b), and discovered that it wasn't the camera. It was AP2, and it was getting schooled by both DPP and LR3b. Especially LR3b.

This really, really bothered me. As I have said before - I prefer Aperture's way of doing things to Lightroom's. But the image quality difference was too great to ignore.

So I pinned my hopes on Apple finally delivering the much-anticipated Aperture 3 (AP3) with improved RAW processing, before LR3b expired.

And, earlier this week Apple did!

I eagerly downloaded the trial, and redid the RAW Processing Shootout. An damn it, LR3b is still better.

AP3 has visible improvements over AP2 in it's RAW processing for the 50D. But Adobe set the bar damn high with LR3b, and AP3 just doesn't match it.

The proof is in the image below. It contains 100% crops of the same section of the above photo, as processed from the RAW file by AP2, AP3, DPP and LR3b. I simply opened the file in each program, and then exported the result of its default processing as a 16-bit TIFF file. I cropped out the same section of each file and put them into this one composite image to make it easy to see the differences between the noise and detail levels. The image is really big because I saved it at maximum quality when I converted to JPEG to preserve the chroma noise detail.

My conclusion - LR3b did the best, period. Second place goes to DPP, but it also rendered the output very flat, some of which got lost in the JPEG conversion. AP3 did better than AP2, but both left more chroma noise than I find acceptable in the image.

One disclaimer - this test is only applicable to the 50D. Folks who use a different camera, especially one from a different manufacturer, might get different results from the RAW processors in this test, and reach a different conclusion about which program does a better job.

That said, here's comparison file, for your pixel-peeping pleasure.

Raw Processing Shootout - Canon 50D, ASA 400, 100% Crop

I'll post an ASA 3200 comparison separately, later.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Aperture 3 vs Lightroom 3 Beta - 50D RAW Developing

Straight up, I like Aperture better than Lightroom. The way it works fits my mind better.

However, I've been working with the Lightroom 3 beta lately, because I've been unhappy the with amount of chroma noise in the photos from my new Canon 50D in Aperture 2 (ISO 400 shots). I'm shooting RAW, so this isn't an in-camera conversion problem.

For the 50D, Lightroom 3 Beta's RAW development simply blows away Aperture 2 in the image quality department. It's not even close.

Today (technically, yesterday), Apple announced the long hoped for Aperture 3. I grabbed the trial, and immediately put it through some RAW development tests, hoping that it would equal or better the image quality from Lightroom 3 beta.


Aperture 3 is a solid improvement over Aperture 2 in the image quality department for 50D RAW files. Apple certainly raised the bar.

Unfortunately, the RAW developer in LR3b has already set an even higher standard.

I'll post examples tomorrow. Right now, I'm going to bed disappointed.

Single Speedlight Challenge 2 - A Hard Light, a Long Way off

Lining Up the Shot

Lighting set up: A Canon 550EX through a 10 degree grid spot about 20 feet away from the cue ball, to camera right, firing straight down the table.

The grid spot confines the flash's output into a tight circle. It's generally used to provide a hard light (one with sharply defined shadows), with dramatic falloff to blackness.

But, if look at the photo, the the light falloff from the right edge of photo to the left edge, isn't all that great. There are sharp shadows, but the pool cure isn't blown out compared to the shooter's face.

That's because the light is so far away.

In the previous entry in the Single Speed Light Challenge, I discussed the inverse square law of light: light intensity decreases by the square of the distance increase from the light source.

In that photo, I used that law to render a background filled with bookcases as featureless black. Here, I use it to get relatively even (not completely even) exposure across the back half of the pool table with a single, hard light.

It works because the distance from the light to the cue ball is about 20 feet. The distance from the cue ball to the face is about 24 feet. It works out to about a half stop of light falloff between the two. If I could have moved the flash even further back, I could have reduced the falloff even more.

Where the grid helps is by keeping the flash off the background, allowing it to go dramatically black.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Single Speedlight Challenge 1 - A Big Soft Light

One of the things I've been exploring a lot over the last year has been using small strobes, aka, "speedlights", off camera to improve my photos.

It's easy to get carried away with this - I now own 5 speedlights! The more speedlights you own, the more complex the lighting set ups you can do, and the easier it is for you to override the existing light.

Still, there's a lot you can do with just a single speedlight. This, for example:


This is lit with a single speedlight firing through a 46" Phototek Softlighter II. The light is about two feet or so away from the face.

Since the light source is so huge relative to the face, and diffused to boot, you get this amazing soft light that only gradually falls off. Simple, but oh-so-effective.

Also note the black background. In real life, there's a wall of book cases back there. That happens when your studio is your library.

However, three things conspire to remove the bookcases from the photo.

1) The Softliter pushes it's light out the front, with very little spilling out the sides and almost none out the back. This cuts the amount of light hitting the bookcases dramatically.

2) Light falls off over distance. For flashes, it generally follows the inverse square law of light, i.e., light intensity decreases by the square of the distance increase from the light source. In English: if Object A is 1 foot from the flash, and Object B is 4 feet away from the flash, then Object B receives 1/16th the amount of light as Object A. In photographic terms, if the correct exposure for Object A is f/11, the exposure for Object B is f/2.8 .

So, the little light that's spilling over onto the bookcases or bouncing back onto them off the walls and such, is way dimmer than the light hitting my face in this photo. Face to flash distance is about 18 inches, light to bookcases distance is about 120 inches.

3) Cameras cannot record as wide a range of brightness values as our eyes can. A good Digital SLR can record 8-11 stop range. So, if the exposure here is f/8, then anything registering a 1.4 or below is going to go black.

Add all of these together, and the bookcases don't get enough light to register on the camera sensor.

A really good, long, detailed set of illustrations of this can be found here.