Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Figuring out someone else´s light

Sometimes you might wonder how a photograph was made. The lighting you see may be the thing you´re looking for. There is an easy way to figure out how the main light was done: the eyes reflect most of their surroundings, so they will also show a reflection of the main light.

click to enlarge

First, have a look at skin shadows and highlights. Do they look soft or hard? This is the first giveaway on whether a hard or soft light source was used (hard = small direct light, soft = large bounced or softened light).
Next, check the eyes. If they were not ´shopped away, you can see the main light reflect as little white spots.
Example: Top middle shot shows little pointy highlights on the skin plus a small spot of light close to the middle. This is obviously direct flash, somehow positioned close to and left of camera.

Note: top right picture says "could be a window", but in fact it can´t. If you look closely, you will see that the reflection grows bigger on its top although it should grow smaller, since the eye is shaped like a ball. This means, either the model was so inclined to that "window" that she was almost lying flat on her stomach or there was a softbox that was inclined toward her head. And that´s what it was. Nonetheless, softboxes DO reflect the same way a window with a drape does. So it remains true in a way.

Checking out the pupils, you can also see whether the shot was made in a studio or outdoors (sometimes you can tell this way only, because the image may be cropped or edited into another background). Wide open pupils will tell you that it was pretty dark and probably indoors. The lower left and top middle shots show a daylight pupil, while the others (especially top right) were obviously made indoors. The eye doesn´t react to flash, because it´s way too short, so unless continuous lighting was used, the pupil always shows the natural conditions around.

Many fashion shots are done with standard beauty light: one large softbox, beauty dish or umbrella high above camera and a reflector right out of frame below. Examine your favourite lingerie catalog for the following examples (badly forged by myself with my lousy mouse drawing skills):

click to enlarge

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Give your camera a shake! Uh... and Flash!

In today´s example I will explain to you how to make fancy effects using the "2nd curtain" function of your camera´s flash control.

Thanks to Nele for letting me use this shot


Your camera is most probably equipped with a focal plane shutter, i.e. a shutter with two cloth, rubber or metal curtains. Winding your camera (something a digital or motorized analog camera does by itself after each exposure) pulls both curtains to one side of the film frame. When you press the shutter release, the first curtain makes its run to the other side, leaving the frame open for exposure. Then, the second curtain follows, closing the frame window and ending the exposure. Afterwards, upon winding, both curtains return to starting position.

Usually, your flash fires when the first curtain has opened completely and the second curtain has not moved yet. This is why there is a maximum shutter speed for flash synchronisation, because both curtains need to be open when the flash fires. Else, you´d get a shadow in your frame.
When you select that "2nd curtain" option, the flash fires just before the 2nd curtain starts to move into the frame. So all you do is choose whether the flash fires upon beginning of end of exposure time. That is all standard flash procedure, but what if you choose to expose longer than usual AND use the 2nd curtain?

You can now introduce some movement! Go ahead, zoom in, zoom out, pan the camera, tilt it, turn it! I turned it, obviously. This shot is exposed 1/8th of a second, enough time to give the camera a good spin and short enough to keep the background relatively dark (it was starting to get dark then). The light chains in the background help underline the movement and add a nice touch of color.

Flash light falls off pretty quick, so I can be sure that the light from my flash hits only my subject and nothing in the background, since we were three meters away from everything else in the frame. The flash was held on an extension cord in my extended left hand. Flash freezes everything, so no worries about shake or anything! The subject needs to be in relative dark, so it doesn´t register on the film during "shake phase". It should virtually be lit only by the flash. We stood in the shade of a big building, keeping the ambient light away from her. This way, each element in the frame gets its own exposure. Remember this one:


This is because the flash is so damn SHORT! If you want to register more or less background in a flash shot, "drag" the shutter some more or less. Easy. Give it some more or less time to register on the film/sensor. It doesn´t matter if you go 1st or 2nd curtain, but 2nd is more convenient for composition. Give it your own try.


I did some small tricks apart from shako-flasho. First, this shot is done in fading daylight on a late winter afternoon. Thus, I could easily mangle background light down to an evening look (like the so-called magic hour when everything turns blue). Plus, the shot is done in Tungsten white balance! I got the warm look on Nele´s face by slapping a full CTO gel on my flash ("Convert-To-Orange" turns daylight sources, such as flash light, into tungsten light by "warming" it up). The "wrong" white balance turns the existing light into deep blue, but the CTO gels give natural light back to the subject. I also added a half-CTO to get some extra warmth on her face - I mentioned before that flash light (in fact any light) falls off so quickly that nothing behind the intended subject gets lit, frozen or warmed up in any way.

The same day, some time earlier. Underexposure and wrong WB gives night character

You need to make the following setting on your equipment:

- set camera to tungsten (incandescent) WB
- gel flash to tungsten characteristic with CTO gels
- set flash firing to 2nd curtain
- set exposure time short enough to get subdued daylight and
- set exposure time long enough to register camera shake
- get whatever result you like by setting other WBs and using other gels

...and go shake away! 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Give your camera a shake!

Today on how to shake your camera: Tripod Trick!

You will need a sturdy tripod with extendable column for this one. "Sturdy" means, the column should not easily be turned or shaken when unlocked. This shot is more difficult if your camera or tripod is lightweight, because heavy things are steadier due to their inertia.
 Extend the column to some 30-50 centimeters and compose your shot. Use the self-timer or a cable release.
Hold the column with your hand near its base, unlock it and carefully let it slip downward. While the camera is slowly descending, make the exposure. Don´t start the exposure while the camera is still resting or there will be a still part in your image instead of a smooth blur. Expose for 1/1-1/15th of a second, depending on the light. The example shot was exposed with 1/10th of a second.

This technique gives beautiful exaggeration of vertical lines. Looks quite like a Feininger, doesn´t it? (I mean Lyonel, not Andreas). Of course, if your tripod is sturdy enough, you can also pan the camera for horizontal effects. Note that I didn´t align the camera exactly horizontally for my shot. The buildings are slightly tilted towards the middle of the frame. But the movement effect pretty much conceals this.

Some gifted humans might even be able to shoot this hand-held. I reckon that you´ll only get a real nice vertical blur if you move (not tilt)  the camera vertically, because everything else includes too much lens distortion and nodal point problems (read: "thing move in weird ways if photographer moves camera in weird ways").

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making a prop shot

Let´s see how to photograph things. Items. ebay sales, if you will.

I did this shot for a degree dissertation. It shows the two ends of an interface for LED controlling in architectural lighting. USB-to-DMX conversion, if you should be interested. It is a composition of two different pictures, but they both were made under the exact same conditions.
I had nothing but a 70x140cm softbox (much too large!) overhead, slightly angled away from camera. I raised a tripod on each side of the table and attached a third tripod on two superclamps high. then I clung an old studio flash head with the softbox to the horizontally clamped tripod. Actually, I could have used a broomstick. And if I´d had a small hot shoe flash, which also would have worked, I would probably have fixed it up there with gaffer´s tape.
A grey seamless paper served as backdrop. It turned almost white due to some overexposure and gave me enough light bounce so I could fix the shot without any more light bounce from below. The seamless makes Photoshop composition a cinch.
You can also do this with a white umbrella. They are a lot cheaper than softboxes. But use it as a reflector. Don´t shoot through it. The light will be much more pointed.

This shot was done under the same light:

BY THE WAY: Please don´t use old flashes on the hot shoe of your camera. Okay, I´ve done that a lot. But I was lucky!
Flashgun sockets are live with trigger voltage. Before some time, this voltage was as high as 60V on flashguns and 300V on studio strobes. There never was a problem, because analog cameras would trigger a flash by simply short-circuiting the flash´s contacts via a  relay. Modern digital cameras do this via electronic circuitry that is easily toasted by voltages too high. Todays flashes are somewhere around 12V and no more dangerous.

This here was actually made for ebay:

I used a light tent. Those come as single items or in a set with two lamps and two tripods.
Light tents are great for small objects. You can also buy them in huge sizes, enough to stand a person inside. Some are great for outdoor scientific photography, because they have no floor and you can put them over an interesting plant. They all collapse into a small disc ready to stow away.
Here, I had two flashes outside the tent. One was aimed  front left and makes the chrome around the lenses glow and the other one rear right that give the highlight across the camera´s left side.
You can shoot hand-held with flash. Flash fires at fractions of a millisecond and will almost always freeze everything. You can use incandescent lights, but their power is spread over time (imagine lighting your home with flashes...) so you must use a tripod. Plus, if the sun shines on your light tent, you will get mighty blue problems when you work on incandescent white balance. Just keep the curtains closed.

Here´s how it was done:

 Here´s one I made for fun (it´s not properly extracted):

 This is lit by two almost identical flashes (GNo.s 40 & 38) with white reflective umbrellas aligned left and right at camera level. The kicker light comes from a flash (GN24) small silver umbrella overhead. This worked right away. Yummy camera!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why I Love Large Format Cameras

because I can get this

from this.

See the amount of detail? It´s a 430 percent crop.
Large format cameras give you unlimited power in terms of resolution. They come cheap via ebay, some of them don´t weigh more than a full-grown DSLR setup and they are great fun to use.

The full image is a mediocre (!) 26.5 MP scan homemade on a rather simple flatbed scanner (HP Scanjet G4050). The red rectangle shows the area the crop was taken from. Hell, I am short of needing a model release contract with everyone in the building!


The camera I used is so old, it ain´t black but has a green hammer finish, the lens is from an age where they made them shine in a silver look and still I can get a tack-sharp image! I scanned another shot, cropped it to the top third and I STILL GOT A 33 MEGAPIXEL IMAGE. You can print that wall-size even from a cropped scan!

This example was shot on 4x5 inch color negative film (Kodak Portra 160 NC), you can even get more detailed pics using slide film.
If I had this picture scanned on a drum scanner in a professional lab, I could get two thousand megapixels. Imagine the print size!
4x5" Sinar Norma meets famous Rollei 35. Wouldn´t you love to use these ladies? Norma rests on my Manfrotto Studio tripod, Rollie glances from the legs of a nice Cullman pocket tripod.

Save reality. Go shoot large format.

A Photographer Gets Bored what does he do?

Here´s my impress-your-friends-ten-minute-setup® for today.

You need:
- a camera
- a manual focus lens, preferably a macro lens
- a tripod
- a high water container (I used a plastic mug, a real sin. Use one with a thin wall. Aquariums do fine)
- Water
- a heavy box
- a black coat (any black fabric will do)
- a flash on a extension cord
- something beautiful to throw into the water
- subdued light (a dim lamp at night so you can see what you are doing)
- a buddy
- a folder (preferably black and preferably with tax documents in it that you don´t like very much; they might get wet)
- cable shutter release, if possible

Fill the water in the container and place it on a table. Level the camera so that it shows the water level in the upper third of the frame, portrait orientation.
Put the box behind the container and put the black coat over it, so that the whole frame behind the water shows black. (the box needs to be heavy so that everything won´t come tumbling down with the coat over it)
Have your buddy hold the item to-be-thrown-into-the-water in the position it will hit the surface and focus on that. You can autofocus, but then you will need to switch to manual focus, so that your setting will remain the same.
Set the camera to its fastest flash-sync speed. Usually today, that is 1/250th second. Thus, your dim working light will not register on the sensor or film. If you´re going digital (which I recommend here, since you´ll be shooting a lot of crap pictures until you get somewhere), use ISO 100.
If possible, zoom your flash to maximum. Tell your buddy to hold the flash almost straight down on the water surface. Don´t flash from behind or through the container´s glass/plastic anyway! You will see all the dirt, scratches and chalk in the container and get your shot milked up by it!
Expose some test shots with the "throw-thing" held in place. Adjust flash power and f-stop until things look good. Check on your display for exposure. If possible, set for mirror-lock-up and use a remote release, so you don´t shake your camera unnecessarily.
You will most likely have to block flash light from hitting the black backdrop. Therefore, use the tax folder (or any flat piece of black anything, a french flag or whatev), lay it flat on the box and the container. Use a tripod if you like to go fancy and clamp it there, but it does the job just resting between the two.

Let your buddy drop whatever he has (not the flash!) into the water and practice your timing. After some ten or twelve shots, you´ll get the hang of it and things start looking nice. It´s fun and you won´t ever get the same shot twice. The flash is short enough to freeze all action and if you were patient enough to wait until night, no other light should register in the shot.

Some people even sell pictures like this! But it takes you ten minutes to set-up and shoot away.
Okay, they spend more time cleaning the container after each shot. I didn´t do that. See all the old splash drops on top and the little bubbles down there? Let them have the money ;-)

I´ve seen sharper pictures of this!
As I mentioned, I used the next best plastic container. Plastic (even more rounded plastic) will always add more diffraction to your shot than any nice thin aquarium glass will do. I just took out my camera, set this up and shot away in order to show my sister-in-law how it is done. Also, I could have eliminated all the working lights and dialed down the flash even more under more controlled circumstances. Then it would have fired even shorter, in terms of 1/20,000 sec, resulting in a sharper picture. But this was made in a living room and it was made for fun.

How to improve your built-in flash

Here´s a simple and effective way to improve your camera´s built-in flash.

Usually the pop-up type flash gives you the typical flash picture: light coming from camera axis, hard shadows, red eyes you need some software to remove, white greasy highlights on skin that should in fact look decent and nice. Plus, if you´re using a lens with a rather long barrel, you´re getting a harsh shadow on the bottom of your frame because the flash is too close to the camera. Not the way to win your subjects´ heart.

Professional photographers use hot shoe flashes that can tilt their heads up against the ceiling. Maybe they also have a built-in bounce card or slip-on diffuser that gives them something they call "80-20": 80 percent of the light go up to the ceiling, lighting the whole room in a pleasant and relatively natural way and 20 percent are thrown directly at the subject to break up shadows that are cast by the light now coming from up above. Pretty decent! Let´s copy that.

Okay, so all you got is a pop-up flash? No worries. Go get yourself something white. That´s maybe a piece of styrofoam, the latest bill from the credit card company or a plastic ice scraper. It needs to be at least 90% white or else you´ll get a color cast, and it should be quite larger that your flash´s flashing end.
You noticed - you don´t have to buy any of these - they usually come for free.
Pop up your flash and hold it at 45 degrees against the front of the flash. Now, you´ll bounce almost all the light against the ceiling and all over the room, giving everything in front of the camera a much nicer look. Some of the apt materials will even allow some of the light to go through them, giving you some nice fill-in light. Maybe you will have to correct your flash power up a bit to squeeze enough light out of your flash. And remember: your ceiling should be white, too! Else you´ll get an ugly color cast and lose lots of light. But in this case, you can still flash THROUGH your bounce card kludge (as long as it is translucent), still improving your flash photography look.

Let´s have a look at that:

Pop-up flash w/o diffusion. Looks harsh and ugly. No definition of shape. You´ve seen this before. ISO 100. If this was a living person, he´d beat me for this.

Pop-up flash with solid white bounce (aka ice scraper or camera manual). Much nicer definition, although I had to raise ISO by 1 stop and flash power by 2 stops (you lose a lot of light in high rooms and matte bouncers - but you also lose the ugly shadows on the wall).

Pop-up flash with semi-translucent white bounce (aka styrofoam sheet as seen in picture above) and ISO lowered back to 100. You also get a great amount of shape definition plus you fill in the shadows. Note: the shadow on the wall is irrelevant in real life, since you wouldn´t put your subject right against the wall but well before it. But it still is a lot nicer than without any bouncer.

This is what happens when you let flashlight slip over your bounce card. For art photography only.

In this crop from a portrait I made you can see that I filled the room with so much light, that I could expose for the daylight outside! And this was made with a small Olympus E-500 with its pop-up flash. Actually, in the lamp you can see the mirror image of the flash hitting my ice scraper. Uh... should I explain this in detail?

First, take your camera ans step to the window. It should be in manual mode. Expose for the daylight outside. The small meter in your viewfinder will tell you when you´re getting there.
The shutter speed you are reading is the shutter speed for your exposure. Now step back into the room, compose your shot and pop the flash against the ceiling. Keep the shutter speed that you read from the window, this is what lets the ambient light in your camera. Play with flash power settings vs. aperture to get it right. This one took me six shots to get is fixed to something similar to what the human eye can percieve.

What else you can do:
- Put a yoghurt cup over your flash (eat yoghurt first): sprays light everywhere and makes light nicer. This has been talked about on the internet before alot.
- Put an old (white) cut-open film canister over your flash. It can even hold color gels! Kodak has these. Gives at least a minimum of softening.

Have fun!

Photographing Art

Photographing a miniature statue in the artist´s workshop. A simple how-to.

Artwork by Rudolf Blöckner, Oberhausen, Germany

You need:
- one table that does the job. Take a nice one, nothing made of plastic. Use wood! I used the artists´ sculpting table. It was around.
- use either a white or a black background. That will make it easier for the viewer to focus on the piece of art without being distracted. You are documenting, not creating. I chose black. So I hung a huge piece of hush cloth over a construction of three tripods.
- place the figurines so that every one gets enough light. Don´t let them stand in each other´s way. Give them a little staggering.
- the figurines are made of cast bronze. Metal is best lit from the side, at sharp angles. That way, its structure begins to live and the edge gets good definition and separation from the background. I gave them a punch from the right which I consider as my main light, because it brings everything alive.
- Fill the shadows thus created on the left side.

Here´s how it was done:

Why does the backdrop need to be so big? The figurines are very small!
A black background needs to be black. Even hush cloth catches light sometimes. I need to put it way back into the room, away from the lighting action. The angle of field - even with figurines this small - gives you a rather large area that you need to keep black. I had prepared it for larger pieces anyway, so it was 2 1/2 meters across and 1,80 meters high. For small things, you can try a black bedsheet or any dark piece of cloth (especially if you go black & white where colour doesn´t really matter)

The best equipment for the job

Ever wondered what the best equipment for your current job is? It´s exactly the equipment you have with you. Okay, Joe McNally said that.
But what do you do if you have almost no equipment with you? In fact, nothing more than a camera?
Use the...

Todays cameras do not depend on a roll of film that will only take daylight or else go blonde like Belgian beer. They have numerous white balance presets that allow you to shoot in any kind of light and get a decent result.
I shot a couple frames for a friend´s recording studio. All I had was a 5MP Casio Exilim (pocket camera!) and three Dedo lights. Okay, Dedo lights are tremendously expensive. I had them borrowed from a good pal whose father works at the movies. They produce tungsten light that can be shaped with four barn doors. They have only 100W each, so I reckon that if you got a lamp with about any 100W bulb, some gaffer´s tape and a bit of black wrap, you can easily reproduce similar effects.

I shot the control room:
Existing light fills the room beautifully. It comes from a straight overhead window. Only thing I did was hide a Dedo on the floor behind the desk and let it cast a nice shadow from the palm tree. Plus, lights turned on in the studio behind the window. That´s why it looks so warm in there: yellow walls, a bit of daylight, electric lights that are pretty low-powered. It´s wrong technically, but doesn´t matter to me. All eyes on the great desk and tape recorder. I let the camera do its own thing. Long exposure. Computer and console monitors show nicely, because it is relatively dark in the room after all and the monitors are... well... relatively bright.

On to the studio:
Again, you can see that the light in the control room on the other side of the glass is much cooler, because the window is larger and lets in more daylight. Here, it´s two lamps. One behind the camera, bouncing over the ceiling and brightening up the room, the other one just out of frame to the right, producing the line over the black cabinet. That line is so defined, because the light has barn doors (equals black wrap) almost closed and is standing close to the wall.
You can see that there´s daylight coming in from above, because the sheet on the stand catches some of it and gets a blue hue whereas the camera is balanced towards tungsten light.

I found that the black cabinet has a lovely grill in it (it is a Leslie!) and decided to put some light through it:
This is what you see in the background. You can zoom Dedo lights, because they have a PC lens as front element. That produces a clearly defined shadow from the grill, although the lamp is not very far away from it (you usually need distance between object and lamp to create a sharp shadow). Another Dedo from the left, with a blue gel and a third one making the greenish spot (blue gel plus yellow wall = green spot) behind the microphone. Full exaggeration and extreme lack of taste. But I somehow like it.

Finally, on to the fantastic Studer A807:
How do you make a car look fast and cool? Spin its wheels. And with a tape recorder? Um, anyone knows?
I let it stand pretty much where it was, using the existing light. Then I raked a blue-gelled Dedo across it real flat (top picture, on the spool). This is what anyone can do with his desktop lamp. The low quantity of the light let me expose long enough to make the "wheels spin". Daylight balance. And nothing but a black coat as a backdrop.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Welcome to my photography blog!

Hi, my name´s Tim. Welcome to my little photography blog.

In the course of time, I will show you some nice hints and tricks from professional photographers and some I even made up myself plus some nice kludges on how to carry your (or your dad´s) old photo equipment into the digital century. Plus, I´m going to teach some old film things, because shooting on film still is my passion.

Enjoy everybody!