Monday, August 27, 2012

The High-Key Still Life

One day, I decided to shoot a nice desktop background for my wife´s new computer. Since it was autumn then, pumpkins seemed just right. I wanted the shot to be high-key, so I wanted a white background and these fancy reflections that everyone is trying to fake with Photoshop right now. Since most pumpkins are of a yellow-orange tone, I decided to include a contrasting color. What is more obvious than pouring blue dispersion paint over a pumpkin?

Here is the result. It is a no-shopped straight-out-of-camera JPEG.

The backdrop is a 70x140cm softbox with one of my trusted Metz 40MZ flashes, radio triggered by Hähnel Combi TF in it. I had to clip a sheet of half WD in front of it to eliminate the visible wrinkles in the front diffusor (tracing paper will do, too). The key light for the pumpkins is another 40MZ, bare bulb from the right and just a bit higher than the subject.

Of course, you can go the traditional way and light a white sheet of paper with two angled softboxes. But the way of using the ´box itself as backdrop saves you space and work. Of course, you can fire any light through two or three sheets of tracing paper, even your desktop lamp will do. But you will have to raise ISO then, since you don´t want the motion of the color to blur. Strobes simply have more power than anything you can muster in your household.

I chose a power setting (which I don´t remember) for that strobe and adjusted exposure taking test shots and watching my Canon 40D´s overexposure warning in the instant playback. Close the aperture step by step, until you have a white background that does not overexpose in every area. This is how you do it best, because you avoid the flash that looks directly in your lens to cause purplish blooming around the subject, softening the whole scene and screwing up contrast. If you want to work the traditional way (or shoot film), you can also meter the light. You´d need 2 stops more on the background than you get from the key light (i.e. the light that actually lights the subject). The best way would be spot metering with a gray card in place of the subject and using a meter that has an engraved zone scale. Put the background "white" to zone IX, the subject light to zone V and go. Shooting slide film, play safe and bracket downward.

With speedlights in a softbox, there is always some hotspotting. Speedlights direct their light to the front. Every speedlight does that. Studio strobes don´t. They have true bare bulbs that really behave like a lightbulb in your regular lamp at home and emit light without directing it. A speedlight will always create a hotspot in any diffusor, because it is designed to emit light forward, not backward or to the sides.
I placed the hotspot in my setup in the middle just above the pumpkins. In fact, you can see some falloff to the lower corners of the backdrop which does not really matter in the final shot or print and can be shopped out easily. But I´m pretty much of a slide film shooter (work-cleanly-and-leave-tings-as-they-are) so I like it and leave it like that.

The pumpkins are resting on a sheet of white acrylic glass which creates the beautiful reflections without any Photoshopping. This means that you can get only as many shots as you have corners, sides and numbers of identical acrylic glass sheets. You just won´t be able to clean up the color mess good enough to not piss you off for the next try. There will be residue. Just buy two more, so you can keep going for a while before it´s time for a coffee and cleaning break for the whole team.

Oh yes, talking about team! You need someone to pour the color. Or you build some remote-controlled mechanism that can be adjusted to pour the right amount in exactly the right place that you can control with some sort of foot pedal and... oh well, just get someone to do it. It´ll save nerves.

We employed a freezer bag from which we cut off a corner. Filled with paint, it´ll give a nice stream that can be controlled by your helper. Don´t cut off too much and test the stream before screwing your most beautiful pumpkin and the damn expensive acrylic glass sheet! Also, cover everything with garbage bags and newspaper. Cover more than you think might be right. Play safe. Hand your helper some rubber gloves.

It is important to try out the frame rate that you can shoot with the flash power you have chosen. Nothing worse than shooting some cool frames of pouring paint and then finding out that on the best shot one of your flashes didn´t fire. Try and find a rhythm that allows your strobes to recycle. Here are the shots before and after the winning shot:

Paint flowing behind stipe and a little too less paint.

Too much paint already - game over for pumpkin and acrylic glass.

Always shoot at the fastest sync speed possible and keep your working lights down. It keeps the room light from effectively illuminating the scene. Although it´s not really "freezing motion" to shoot slow flowing paint, you don´t want any ghost images here but a clean, crisp shot. Use a tripod and arrest everything safely. Compose your shot thoroughly. Clean your acrylic sheet with glass cleaner and a lint-free cloth beforehand. Play safe and don´t screw up your carpet. Remember, these are all unedited JPEGs from my camera and I think that they look pretty decent. That is due to good preparation.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shooting the Pros

I was assigned to shoot some frames for the up-and-coming IMAPRO, the International Music Academy for Professionals based in Munich, Germany. They are working to be one of the leading academys for musical education in Germany, harnessing a fresh training system for drummers and still developing revolutionary learning and motivation methods for numerous other instruments.

See their website under and learn about their new project here.

The assignment involved three drum coaches, the founder and a picture for the drum coaching flyer.

Here is the shot for the flyer. All pictures are RAW developed and only edited a bit for contrast, colour and sharpness. They were all shot on a EOS 5D MKII with the fabulous and ever-so-sharp Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro. Lights were my beloved Metz 40MZ strobes. --
This is a nice-looking promotional shot, isn´t it? Well, here´s the story. I found myself in a rented rehearsal room, crammed with equipment from numerous bands, walls covered with egg-carton rubber foam. Hardly any room to move and no way to shoot nice frames without either a) leaving background things black, b) incorporating and lighting what is there or c) going wild with lights. And this is what I did with this shot.

I knew that if I showed the room the way it was, it would look super-crappy to any viewer. Although musicians might recognise the location as a musician´s trusted workspace, the general public would simply be repelled by its crummy looks. There was no way to produce decent-looking portraits here, simply because of the lack of space and because I had only brought a wee bit of white background paper. Although the walls were covered with near-black foam material I would have to spare out the mirrors, Coca Cola signs, lightbulbs and pieces of amplifiying equiment that covered ninety percent of the walls (or go for many hours of Photoshop time, nah!). So I decided to go for a backstage look for the whole set of pictures, incorporating the nice contrast of neutral and blue light, implying some sort of concert hall setting and indeed showing what I could find to fit my frame.

The subject on the flyer is lit by a 90x90cm softbox without the front diffuser which makes for a nicely defined light. the figure of the resting drummer is then only highlighted by a blue-gelled bare flash from high right behind. Both lights can be distinctly seen in the reflection in the chrome-plated stool legs (see my post about figuring out someone else´s light).

The basic setup for any other shot in this series is quite the same. I mostly let the softbox illuminate all of the scene. Sometimes I added a third light to add some accent.

There are three more lights in the flyer setup, all bare flashes. The ivory finished drum surfaces are lit by one light from high left (which also creates the nice BOKEH´d reflections from the chrome rims), the red accent in the drums comes from a red-gelled light from high left behind and the rubber foam covering the wall gets a blue spot from a sky blue gelled flash resting on the floor very close to the wall (accentuating the structure of the foam material).

As you can tell from my description, there are two totally individual setups for either fore- and background. This is due to the old rule of not lighting anything that you don´t have in your frame. I used every inch I had, myself leaning against one wall, framing the shot by moving the model and having the drum set in its natural place, close to the opposite wall. Every light in the shot is also as close to the wall as the light stands allowed me.

Here are the portrait shots of the drum coaches. Believe me, I used every corner of the location I could use. Having to shoot another pic there would give me serious problems. Of course, everyone holds his or her sticks to show their weapon of choice and noise.




The lighting setup, as described above (adding a light behind the rack and a blue fill with Manu and swapping the blue kicker light for an umbrella fill with Dan, while letting the blue kicker fill the aisle from behind a corner far behind, left) can be seen below. IT IS SIMPLE! Also, I incorporated equipment parts as blurred foreground for Dirk (Hi  Hat) and Manu (microphone stand), which makes a picture more interesting quite often. In the shot of Dan, I also dropped the exposure time down to 1/125th to let the existing light in the back live a little. Otherwise, I used the 5D´s maximum sync speed of 1/200 to eradicate all of the existing artificial light (you usually check first whether your f-stop, speed and ISO settings will turn any unflashed shot black. If so, you´re fine with what you´re at and can start to place some strobes).

Working with strobes instead of a portable studio light system always gives us decently small depth-of-field at close distances, unless we trade reasonable recycling times for power. But this helps us create interesting images with blurred back- and foregrounds anytime we have to spice up a disastrous-looking location. Remember, the whole place, including the drum kit and the aisle, looked terrible and kludgy. Of course, I could have produced nice and clean portraits against white background, which I thought I was assigned to do. But a bit of thinking and tinkering with lights produced these vivid, interesting images that fit the general spirit of the IMAPRO very well. Thanks to digital technology, we were able to discuss every single subject after a few test shots, so I was assured that the customers would be satisfied any time.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Strobist Business Portrait

A few weeks ago, I was on assignment to shoot a business portrait of Ulrich Loechter, founder of the Loechter Company, a Munich-based business consultancy. I had another shoot going at the same place, so setup took me less than ten minutes including a few test shots featuring my own self.

I opted for a very simple, yet traditional three-point setup. Let´s look at it first:

Note: On the 40MZ, power setting go 1 - 2^ - 2 - 2_ - 4^ - 4 - 4_ ...256. This is the power equivalent in thirds of a stop. Thus, "4_ " means 2 1/3rd steps down from full power, "8" means 3 stops down. So the kicker was actually 2/3 of a stop stronger, more focused and hitting a silver reflector. A lot more punch than the key light! But remembering that we photogs usually shoot persons against the sun when outdoors, we find there´s nothing wrong about a strong kicker. Uh... ISO 20? I´m sorry, of course, I mean ISO 200!

A three-point setup consists of a main (key) light from the front of the person (not from the camera, but the person´s face!), a kicker light to give a nice edge from behind and a fill light that fills in shadows.
Although in outdoor photography, a fill light CAN come from the camera, in studio photography you would usually set it up so that it marks the right-angle-point in a right triangle with the two other lights. You may have noticed that I didn´t use a flash but a simple white reflector. It catches some light from either key and kicker light and throws it in the general direction of the person, giving a smooth and discrete fill for the shadows while retaining the beautiful structures of both face and clothing.
You will also have noted that I didn´t take care of lighting the wall! In the picture you will see that there is a slight blue shade in the top corner, but I didn´t bother. Should it not match the customer´s wishes, I´d clear that in Photoshop. Luckily, it did. Please note that this is a direct-from-camera-JPEG.

Ulrich Löchter,

I usually keep distances as follows: 1.8m from key to fill and 1.7m from fill to kicker. Kicker is as close to the wall and angled as steep as possible toward the subject (when you use an umbrella, you have to watch that the flash light does not spill onto the wall, giving an umbrella-shaped shadow and uneven background lighting). So you can copy my setup right away, maybe varying f-stop and ISO due to use of flashes different than mine. Flash zoom is key=35mm to fill the whole umbrella and kicker=50mm to keep the flash from spilling. The key light umbrella will take care of lighting the background wall. A softbox wouldn´t do that, because it´d be much closer to the subject and produce more concentrated light. There would be a shadow gradient on the wall, darkest to the upper left. One more thing that´s nice about this setup: The physical presence of the fill light keeps the kicker light from hitting your lens, reducing contrast and producing flare and sad customers. Keep that in mind: In order to get a good, clean photograph you want to avoid hard light sources hitting your front lens!

I like to use the smaller silver umbrella for kicker light, because being a smaller source, it produces harder light than a white umbrella would. Plus, it is my smallest umbrella so I don´t have that much trouble pushing it closer to the right frame border and keeping it out of the shot. In fact, you can use a bare bulb flash as a kicker light, it wouldn´t matter much. Kicker lights always come in hard, because they make a direct reflection on the subject´s skin and clothing. I just like to soften it a little in most cases.

For the second shot, I had him stand up and put his jacket on, just to have a variation that looks less casual and relaxed, but more like a reputable executive:

Look, Ma! Same light, different position.

The setup didn´t change a bit, but he stepped back a little. You can see that the shadow fill lost a lot of power. This happens when you increase the distance between subject and light. The light power drops exponentially. Your fill is the weakest light in this setup, thus loses first when your subject changes position. I liked the look of it, giving him an even stronger touch of sincerity. Thus, we kept it this way.

Here you can see what each light does:

Sorry for my hideous arrow drawing skills.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The ultimate Strobist flash: Metz 40MZ

Hello Strobists! Today I want to show you the flash head I consider the most appropriate for location work. It features manual control over 8 stops of flash power in 1/3rd steps and can be zoomed from 20 to 105mm (Ver.3 only) of flash spreading, which makes it uniquely versatile. It can read out today´s cameras´ TTL informations to work correctly in automatic mode and still features full manual control over its capabilities... the 


An interesting note first: Metz flashes are always adapted to the camera system via an interface called "SCA Adapter". The model of the adapter corresponds to the camera brand. There are sync-contact-only-SCAs that only feature the middle contact, but also a variety of Leica, Nikon, Canon and Minolta/Sony adapters. Some come with readout of TTL, some don't. For the 40MZ, there technically is no way of reading out today´s E-TTL II, but the flash DOES read out ISO, f-stop and lens data from a modern camera for use in automatic mode or calculation in manual mode when fitted with a SCA 3101 (Metz provides a list on which SCA adapter fits which camera model). ATTENTION STROBISTS: none of these SCA adapters has a PC terminal, they need to be triggered via the hot shoe contact!!

The 40MZ´s head can tilt up to 90 degrees in three steps. There is no arresting feature, so it cannot easily carry heavy light modifiers when tilted. The head might drop. It also tilts down some seven degrees and swivels 90° to the left (locking also at 45°) and 180° to the right (locking at 45 and 90°). There exists a slip-on diffusor, but I don´t know if it´s only produced off-brand. The lack of a tilt lock yet makes it much faster to swing around when changing camera orientation or light situation.

As mentioned before, the flash power can be reduced to 1/256th in 1/3rd stops, meaning 8 stops of dynamic range in total, 24 power settings (!) with almost instantaneous recycling times from 1/8th down. This makes it the ideal flash for off-camera strobist action. If I recall correctly, there are even 12 stops of range when used on-camera in automatic mode.

Every 40MZ has built-in autofocus support light (classic red on 40MZ-1).

The guide number is 40, BUT THIS IS FROM THE TIME BEFORE CHEATING! If you buy today´s "Speedlights" or "Speedlites", their great guide numbers of 55, 58 or even 60 are measured from the longest zoom position, where the flash power ist extremely concentrated. In early days, guide numbers were always stated at 50mm standard zoom setting. So it is with the 40MZ. At 105mm, the guide number is 50.

This machine can STROBE! You can adjust the number of flashes and the time in which they are to be fired. This gives you stroboscopic effects in a single picture.

This flash comes in three variations, 40MZ-1 to 40MZ-3. Versions 2 and 3 include an additional front-fixed flash (!!) in the foot. The light output is divided 85/15 between main and auxiliary head when activated (at the flick of a switch). Comes in handy when you want to illuminate the room by bouncing high over the ceiling or turn the main reflector into an umbrella with the aux head pointing at the subject. This support flash has slip-on ND plastic reducers hidden under the flash head! They reduce aux light power by 1 or 2 stops respectively.

Check it out... there are two ND plastic light reducers for the supplementary flash head. One is slipped on, the other is still in its place under the flash head (can be seen at the side that is slanted by 45° here). That´s analogue shit at its best!

There is a pull-out and slip-on wide-angle diffusor on some examples which enables light spreading for 20mm focal lengths. The 3 version can also zoom to 105mm instead of V1 and 2´s 85mm maximum.

There is a Ready-Sound (V2 and 3) that signalises acoustically that the flash is ready to go. It can be deactivated. There is also an alarm sound for automatic mode that rings when the flash didn´t get the right amount of light for the exposure.

Here you see the back, power turned off. The buttons are:
- display illumination
- f-stop adjustment (read out automatically for automatic mode with correct SCA adapter)
- remote switch (this flash can be triggered TTL-style with a special command module)
- "P" switch for power setting
- "ISO" adjustment  (read out automatically for automatic mode with correct SCA adapter)
- Ready tone adjustment (V2 and 3 only)
- "Prog" button for stored programs (you can store up to nine programs with every adjustable setting)
- zoom adjustment
- up right: "+" and "-" buttons for adjusting the preselected value
- ready lamp and test firing button
- mode switch A-M-Strobe-TTL and sometimes "EASY MODE" (screw this one)
- o.k. lamp for check of correct exposure in automatic mode
- power switch with energy-save-setting and keylock setting (and both-at-once-setting!)
below: the SCA adapter
- first- or second curtain-setting ("slow flash")
- coarse and fine power setting (+-3 stops and +-1/3stops)
- ATTL on/off (Canon specific!) some feature ETTL/ATTLm but still can´t read E-TTL. The flash doesn´t understand it.
On the left side of the device you can see the switch for the additional flash (on/off).

The display is super comprehensive. It shows everything you need to know. And it´s huge!

Metz flashes come cheap via ebay! Most units have been cared for exceptionally well. They take 4 AA batteries, just like any other flash.

Metz flashes are German-built and really tough. I´ve dropped some of mine a couple times, once from a two-meter high support. I had to push some of the plastic back into the fittings, but it still lives and throws light at things.

The 40MZ doesn´t produce a round light spot. It´s more like a wide oval. But that´s common among zoom head flashes.

The 100-Euro-Calumet plastic light modifier set will fit.
The Rogue 3-in-1 Honeycomb Grid will fit (and work EXACTLY as promised! Nice!)

If you want to adapt this flash to some Bowens-Softbox-Speedring-Adapter or so, keep in mind that the 40MZ´s build is lower than the regular speedlight thing. You will need a thread adapter or two to raise it a little so it will fit through an adapter ring made for Canon or Nikon flashes. But then, it´s much more suitable for umbrella use. Tilting the head down by some degrees, it hits the exact middle of the umbrella.

SUMMARY: You get a hugely versatile flash head for real cheap. If the SCA adapter fits your camera and model, you get TTL-like features via automatic mode THAT ACTUALLY WORK while you still retain control over the power output. It is a dream to work with off- and on-camera. Since it was developed in a time between traditional flash work-only and super-modern TTL thingies-only, it marks the almost ideal design for both worlds (you do need to be a little quirky to show up with one of these). If you plan to get yourself one, don´t be shy to spend a hundred Euros/130 Dollars. It´s very rewarding to work with.

Don´t buy Chinese. You will lose your sync speed and have to go as slow as 1/160. You will not get a reliable unit that triggers every connected flash every time. Get at least a Hähnel Combi TF! It´s worth the extra money. The Hähnel doesn´t feature traditional PC connectors or -breakouts, but it will also work as a wireless remote camera trigger. It will trigger Nikon receivers from a Canon transmitter and vice versa, although only the hot shoe contact will work, still triggering any flash in the world.