Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lumix DMC-LX5 for Strobist Work

One of our Christmas presents to ourselves this year was a new point-and-shoot camera. We snagged a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 from Amazon on a one-day holiday sale for about $100 off.

It makes a nice compromise camera for my wife and I. For her, it has a good point-and-shoot mode. For me, it has full manual controls, a standard hot shoe and high enough image quality (RAW files!) that I can carry it and not bitch too much about not having a DSLR on hand.

Other important specs: image stabilization, 24-90mm equivalent lens, f 2.0 - 3.3 (tops out at f/8), shutter speeds from 250 sec to 1/4000 sec with the updated firmware, and face detection AF. You can check out the full specifications on the Panasonic site.

I got my first chance to try out the LX5 with my Cactus v5 radio triggers and my speedlights about week after it arrived. As hoped, everything worked fine, as shown by this photo, lit entirely by speedlights.

Next, it was time go outdoors, and see how well this worked for blending natural light with a flash exposure. It was a sunny day, and I should have been a little worried, since the aperture tops out a f/8, that I might not be able to use fill flash without blowing out details.

But I wasn't worried, because earlier testing had revealed a pleasant surprise: full external flash sync, with radio triggers, up to 1/1000th of a second.

That's right, 1/1000th of a second flash sync - with radio triggers ! (Note, Cactus v5 radio triggers, other brands not tested) See it for yourself below - sunlight is streaming in from the right, and the flash is coming in through a 25-inch shoot through umbrella from the left.

And here's another, at 1/640th of a second:

Combine that high shutter speed sync with the fact that the LX5 has pretty good image stabilization, and it turns out to be an excellent tool for mixing ambient and flash exposures together.

Let me also say that face detection AF, when it works, is a god send. Not to mention, the flexibility in placing the AF area is excellent.

Even with all this awesomeness, it's definitely not a full on replacement for a DSLR. That small sensor, while it produces good images, simply can't match the image quality a DSLR will give you. Another disadvantage of the small sensor: it's hard to control the depth-of-field, the way you can with a DSLR.

This next pic shows pretty much the best this camera can do at crushing backgrounds - the lens is at full telephoto and wide open.

It's not horrid, but with a DSLR and the right lens, I can make that background nothing but creamy blur and make her really pop out.

That said, the LX5 is an amazingly capable strobist tool, and pretty fantastic for a point-and-shoot camera. There will be trips where I leave the DSLRs behind now, in favor of the LX5. Also, it's probably going to find its way into my camera bag as a backup camera for important shoots.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Learning Light Patterns: Honl Grids, Snoots and a Quick 430 EXII vs LP 160 Comparison

Controlling light is critical to effective photography. That's why there are so many light modifiers out there: beauty dishes, parabolic umbrellas, softboxes, snoots, grids and so on.

You don't need to know exactly what every modifier ever made does, exactly. However it really pays off to know what sort of patterns your favorite modifiers create. It speeds set up time greatly, and we never have enough of that, and helps you pick the right modifier for the effect you want. If you're at a bright location or working with speedlights, it's extra valuable.

Honl 1/8" Speed Grids and 8" Speed Snoots are some of my go-to gear. I carry them pretty much everywhere, and use them all the time. Both create circles of light, with snoot circles having a harder edge, and grids having a somewhat longer falloff. As a side note, I find that snoots do better firing back towards the camera (as rim lights or backlights) than grids, because they produce less lens flare.

For flashes, these days I rely heavily on my speedlights: LumoPro 160s and Canon 430 EXIIs. Both claim  their zoom heads can concentrate their light output to match the field of view of a 105mm lens.

But what, exactly is the difference between a snoot circle and a grid circle? And is there a standard definition of a 105mm light pattern, or does that vary from manufacturer to manufacturer? I decide a quick test was in order, and the results are presented visually below, with discussion to follow.

Lighting Patterns Comparison

There is a much larger version on Flickr (opens in a new window). From top-to-bottom: LumoPro 160 @ 105mm, Canon 430 EXII @ 105mm, Honl 1/8" Speed Grid, Honl 8" Speed Snoot Gray Interior, Honl 8" Speed Snoot Black Interior (gray, reversed), and Honl 8" Speed Snoot Gold/Silver Interior.

Flash to wall distance is 20 inches in all photos, flash power at 1/64.  All were shot with an 85mm lens from about 5 feet behind the flash, with the flash heads always zoomed to the 105mm position. All the Honl modifiers were used on the 430 EXII.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that the LP 160 and the 430 EXII have pretty different ideas of what 105mm coverage means. The LP 160 is a lot more concentrated, with a much sharper falloff. The 430 EXII offer a much gentler transition, and what I would term over coverage - it covers a lot more of the frame, which is actually an 85mm lens 5 feet further back. 

Neither is right, or wrong, I guess, though the LP 160 is closer to what I expected from a flash set to 105mm. The important thing is that I now know that if I need a seriously tight beam from an unmodified flash, I'm reaching for the LP 160. If  I need a long transition area, I'm grabbing the 430 EXII.

Next up, the differences between the grid and the snoots. Things progress nicely through the next three examples. The grid produces a tight circle with a nice transition zone, the gray interior snoot produces a slightly smaller circle with a sharper transition, and the reversed gray snoot (black inside) produces a circle with the harshest transition from light to black.

Then we hit the gold/silver interior snoot and whoa! The color difference I expected, but not the almost double circle effect. It's a bright center, with a sharp drop to a dimmer secondary ring that has a looong transition to black.

It's dramatically different than the Speed Grid, or the other Speed Snoot variants. This isn't bad: it just means I'm going to be thinking about how and when I use Gold/Silver snoot differently from now on. Previously, I'd treated it as nothing more than a warmer, more reflective Gray Snoot. If I need a sharp drop to black, it'll stay in the bag, or be used reversed. If I need that double circle effect to put details into some shadows around spotlighted area, this baby will do the trick.

In fact, I have a belly dance performance to shoot where that will be awfully handy...

One final thing: notice how little loss of intensity there is in the center of the circles, vs the unmodified 430 EX II. Unlike light softeners like umbrellas and softboxes, these modifiers don't greatly reduce light intensity.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

2012 Photo Calendars Now Available

My 2012 People's Choice Calendar of nature and landscape photos is now available at

Discount Update: Through the end of the month, coupon code DECPHOTOS30 gets you 30% off. Through Dec. 6, SLEIGHRIDES gets you free UPS Ground shipping. You can use only use one, alas, but the shopping cart will allow you to test both out to see which one saves you more money.

It makes a great addition to any office or cubicle, as well as a great gift.

You can even buy prints of the individual photos at my SmugMug site. :-)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Back to Nature for a Change of Pace

I've been doing tons of people photography lately. So, Friday morning, I managed to free some time to slip away to the Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, to spend the hours around dawn shooting photos with no people in them.

Mist and Reflection

During my hours along the peacefully gurgling river, I encountered a beaver along the river bank at close range. It freaked and barreled towards me. I stepped out of the way, hoping it was just panicked, not rabid.
It charged right past me and into the water. A few minutes later it started slapping the water with its tail, making a loud splashy boom.
I also saw a group of deer crossing the river in the mist. It was magical. And naturally, I was in absolutely the wrong place to take pictures of it. I was standing in a bunch of trees as feeling returned to my feet after having overtopped my water proof boots getting these photos:

Dawn on the Eno

I spent a little more time, getting some shots of the river bank scenery, and then headed for home.

As I headed for home, a nap, and then work, I had my final wildlife sighting of the day. A kingfisher came flying down the river, turned towards me for a second or two, then veered away violently to the far side of the river. Guess it realized I was there.

Not a single person did I see while I was in the park. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Light Modifier Review: Rusty Oil Drum

I figured I'd start my Light Modifier Review series off with a rarely utilized modifier: a rusty oil drum.

I was hunting outdoor locations at a photography meetup, when I found this rusting oil drum in a raised alcove under a bridge. Looking at it's lovely orange interior, I theorized that if put a speedlight with a full CTO gel down there, aimed, not up, but at the side of the drum, I would get a really soft, almost glowing, amazingly orange light coming out of the top of the drum.

Since it was near Halloween, and the meetup theme was costumes, I decided to put the oil drum to the test. I matched it with a couple of snooted speedlights to fill in the top of the face and to provide a hair/separation light. The hair/separation light got a deep blue gel, to emphasize the other-worldiness of the situation. The tight face fill started with a 1/4 CTO gel, but I quickly replaced that with a full CTO gel to better match the underlighting.

So, how'd it do? Pretty well, actually. It produced about f/4 @ ISO 400 with the speedlight on (if my recollection is correct) half power. The light did indeed pick up some lovely red and orange tones from the rusty. The drum produced a multiply bounced, soft, radiant light. I think the light was great, but you can make up your own mind based on the photos in this post, all taken using the rusty oil drum light.

Good Points:

  • Cheap - it was just sitting there, free for the using.
  • It produced great soft light with unique color.
Weak Points:
  • Not portable. I guess you could schlep one around if you had an SUV or pickup truck, but damn, it's heavy and unwieldy.
  • Not manueverable. It's a steel drum. A big steel drum. Your light stand or boom won't hold it, and neither will your assistant, so good luck changing the placement or even the orientation of the light.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thinking About Style

I was keeping an eye on the activity on my flickr stream, when I saw something that made me smile...not a little smile but a big, wide, toothy grin.

One of my favorite photographers, Anna Fischer, commented on and favorited a couple of my shots from this year's Dragon*Con. A lot of her shots, particularly of cosplayers, which is where our photostreams converge, fall into the, "Damn! Wish I'd taken that," category, for me.

So, it added a big boost to the normal kick I get every time somebody says something nice or clicks the favorite button on a photo of mine.

Laughing Joker

While I was enjoying the rush of ego, I ended up looking at some of her most recent photos from Dragon*Con, and it got me thinking about photographic style.

Anna, especially in her cosplay photos , has a strongly individual style. Most of the time, I don't even have to check the name under the photos in my contact stream to know they are hers. The combination of background choices, composition, natural looking lighting, and the boken signature of 35mm f/1.2 L lens used close to wide open at reasonably short distance pretty much make my brain go "Anna shot that." Here's an excellent example of her cosplay photography style:

Photo By Anna Fisher

In contrast, I don't feel that I have a distinctive photographic style...yet. Maybe I'm developing one? I'm not sure. I begin to think maybe I am, and then I hit a new situation and adapt and the photos come out looking good...but different than the last batch.  Hell, I'll even radically switch up things in the middle of a shoot - change lenses, lighting, and perspective.

Part of this comes from my photographic beginnings as a newspaper shooter, I'm sure. The photojournalistic ethic is to go into a place, a situation, an event, and work with what's there, as it's happening. You can only previsualize so much, both because you need to remain open to the possibilities of the situation, and because many times you only have the barest bit of information about the situation you're going into.

Many times, my shoot plan is to just go with the flow, see what's available, and adjust on the fly. That can tend to work against a consistent look.

I also find myself ambivalent about developing a distinctive style. On the one hand, it would be nice to have people say - "I always recognize your work right off,"(as long as they don't add, "you hack!"). And there's a tangible reward - people who like that look will come to you to get it. You carve a niche for yourself in an incredibly crowded market.

At the same time, I like the idea of being a stylistic chameleon. It feels good be able to get arresting photos in a variety of styles, to be able to show photos and have folks express surprise at how different they all look.

And, of course, I worry (dramatic pause with back of hand to tilted head) - gasp - about being pigeon-holed. Oh, the horror of being trapped in a style long after it's ceased to hold my interest, consigned away in conversation as "the guy who always does that."

Which is, of course, dramatically silly for me right now. When this blog starts getting David Hobby style page views, then, maybe, just maybe, I might should worry about whether there's a pigeon-hole with my name on it. Maybe, but probably not.

Seems to me, my best bet is to keep shooting, keep refining my skills, keeping working that artistic eye, and you know, if I develop a signature style along the way, OK. If continue to be a stylistic chameleon, OK.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recent Work III

Belly Dancer at the Golden Genies Hafla and Benefit in Durham, North Carolina:

The Red Veil Dance

Couple kissing by the window after a baby shoot gone sideways:


A surprisingly awesome sunset from a day I was out scouting locations:

Light Fantastic

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why I have 3 HDR Programs

Yes, that's right. I own 3 different programs capable of tone-mapping multiple exposures into one image that displays a tonal range greater than a camera sensor could record in a single image, simply referred to as High Dynamic Range (HDR) imagery.

So why is it necessary to own 3 programs? Because HDR is relatively new, and sometimes one program handles the merge much better that the other two.

My current HDR lineup, in order of preference, is HDR Efex Pro, Photoshop CS 5 and Photomatix.

HDR Efex Pro

While all can produce outstanding results, HDR Efex Pro gives me the most control, the most options and the simplest workflow. As a result, I tend to reach for it first. And generally, that pays off.

Brick and Battle Creek
Paper Mill at Sunset
New Hope Creek

Photoshop CS5

Photoshop CS5 is my fallback. While it doesn't give me all the options HDR Efex Pro does, it excels at image alignment. So, when I hit a series of images that HDR Efex Pro just can't seem to line up correctly, it's off to Photoshop.

It's not my go to program because of the extra work it requires to get what I want, and because Photoshop HDR seems tuned to produce kind of flat, naturalistic HDR images. HDR Efex Pro does that, and so much more, in an interface which works well for me. But since HDR Efex Pro still has some hiccups when it comes to image alignment, I still have to go with Photoshop's HDR from time-to-time.

This image is a perfect example. HDR Efex Pro just could not get the images aligned right, which made for an unacceptably fuzzy picture. Photoshop CS5 got the alignment correct, but produced a flat, uninspired image that needed significant work in Viveza 2 and Aperture :

York River, Afternoon Low Tide


Old Dock, Older Oak
Photomatix used to be my go to program, but now languishes in 3rd. It has its own look, and if I'm not getting what I want out of HDR Efex Pro or Photoshop I'll turn to it. But that's a rare thing these days, as generally I get what I want out of the first two.

A Matter of Taste

If you were looking for a definitive take on which HDR program is the only one you'll ever need - sorry. :-) Each has it's strengths and weaknesses and quirks, and how well those dovetail with your artistic vision and way of working will determine the one you like the most.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Recent Work, Part II

More of the stuff I've been shooting lately.

Schenck Memorial Forest:

A pair from a little-visited section of Duke Forest:

New Hope Creek

Stump - Color

And some folks doing something perhaps unwise along the Haw River:

In a Dam Hurry

Monday, May 30, 2011

Recent Work

I've been really quiet, but shooting a fair bit. Here's a sampling of what I've been up to:

Undulation Nouveau at Full Steam Brewery.

Floating Grace

ACC Women's Tennis Tournament semifinals - FSU, celebrates upsetting top-seeded Duke.

Upset Celebration

A Bridal Themed Meetup put on the by the NC Photography Group:

Bridal Spotlight

Red Dress

And more in part two.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Keeping a Camera Handy

I'm on vacation at the Outer Banks of North Carolina this week, and I have been trying to keep up with my New Year's Resolution to have a camera with me more often. So, pretty much everywhere I've gone this week, with wife and without, I've made sure I had my 60D and 300mm f/4 in the car with me, ready to deploy at a moment's notice.

And, this week at least, it's paid off with the shots below.

Young Ospreys in Love

Bodie Island Deer

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shoulda Used A Flash

Pan in the Window

Would, coulda, shoulda...

I was shooting this girl in the moat window of Castle McCullouch in High Point, North Carolina. I had an entire lighting set up, but then I noticed how nicely the natural pre-twighlight was falling on her. So I pulled the radio trigger off the camera and very quickly shot a bunch of all natural light frames.

The end result looks pretty good, I think. But, if I'd been thinking ahead and had a flash ready for the situation, I could have saved myself a lot of agony in post.

I spend a lot of time burning down the background and slate floor, and dodging her, to get this right (I also dropped the white balance near to tungsten to get the lovely blue). Lots of manipulation like on a relatively high ISO exposure (1600) emphasizes the noise, both chroma and luminance.

What I really needed wasn't much. Dropping the exposure by a stop, say by cutting the ISO to 800, would have made working with the hot areas easier.

Of course, doing that would have killed the detail in her clothes too much. A gridded and lightly blue gelled Canon 550EX class speedlight cut down to 1/16th or 1/32nd power (2 -3 stops down for the ETTL crowd) could have put in just enough light into the area from her knee to her hat to pull out the details without overwhelming the scene.

That combo would have greatly reduced my post-processing workload, and improved the image quality noticeably.

Live and learn, I guess, and yay! Photoshop.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Last July, I reported that my Flickr stream, after years of existence, had finally passed 100,000 views.

Yesterday, barely more than 7 months later, it crossed the 200,000 view threshold.

I see three big reasons for the increased viewership: more photos (I've been trying to shoot a least once a week), better photos (I have gotten better in the past year), and a huge upswing in the number of attractive women appearing in my photos. :-)

Frozen Shadow Motion

Kitty Roars

Monday, February 7, 2011

Indoor Tennis

I love playing tennis. I also enjoy shooting tennis.

Until now, though, I didn't enjoy shooting it indoors. Most indoor tennis courts are dismally lit, and I hated the results I got when shooting at ISO 3200 and above.

However, I took my Canon 60D and new-to-me Canon 200mm F/2.8 L lens out to Duke's Sheffield Tennis Center for a women's team match the other day, and am pretty happy with what that combination produced shooting at ISO 4000, 1/500 and f 2.8.

For ISO 4000, these are pretty good. And with 18 MP to work with, I could shoot loose and still end up with a 5-7 MP final image.

The full set of photos from the Duke - Brown women's match is on my flickr site.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Injury and Illness Time Out

Sorry about the silence.

I had knee surgery, and then managed to come down with bronchitis.

These folks look just a little better than I feel.

Zombie Wedding

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Yorick and the Girl

This is a serendipity image.

I shot this at a Strobist meetup, and the original image was terribly overexposed, thanks to another meetup participant who managed to synchronize his shot with mine. No big deal, them's the breaks when you've got a a bunch of folks with their own lighting set ups firing away in close proximity to each other. I used to have this happen shooting college basketball: every so often I'd manage to synchronize my shot with whoever was using the big strobes up in the ceiling. Talk about a bulletproof negative!

Anyway, I didn't delete the image because when I looked at it, I immediately thought - "that might make a cool high contrast black-and-white."

So I kept it around, and a couple of days, ago, finally got to working on it. I actually upped the exposure and contrast even more in Aperture, then took it into Silver Efex Pro for B&W conversion and toning.