Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Strobist Solution for Existing Light

I stumbled across this strange 70ies-location while shooting some sedcard pictures for an agency. I just had to take this shot in between.

I placed Katie, the model who was with me at the moment, in a frame with some interesting reflections of the lit columns. Without knowing the quality of the light coming from the columns, I decided to go for a look like in my "Give your camera a shake! Uh... and Flash!" post. Setting the camera to tungsten white balance, everything around Katie would turn pretty much blue.

I did a first test shot at the setting I shot all day with: Cloudy WB. This warms the daylight shots up, that´s why I like it a lot for portraiture.   First check at 1/125, f/5, ISO 320:

  Turned out, the column light is daylight colored, maybe a bit warmer. Pure luck! If it had been fluorescent colored, I would have ended up with some strange color shift that I´d have to balance one of my flashes to with a gel. In this shot I have already placed a flash with white reflective umbrella to her right (not yet covered with the 1 1/2 CTOs, which I knew I would want to have for my desired look).

Slowed down 1 1/3 stops of shutter speed to raise the ambient light (1/50th now) and changed the WB to tungsten already just to see what the lights do:

The light direction seems nice now. Slap the CTO gels on the umbrella flash, move it a little closer to the model for added light power and add a bare bulb kicker flash (both flashes are triggered via radio, so I can move them around at will):

Wooo... I wanted to put the kicker on the darker side of her, in order to get a bit more separation. But turns out immediately, it is the wrong side. I should put it where the viewer expects the highlight: where the bright light (the column) is. That´s a different idea, but definitely the better one. Alrighty, let´s fix that quickly.

Done. Got the light the way I wanted. Stuck with ISO, stop and shutter speed as I figured out from the first test picture and made a few shots. Nine, to be precise.
I ended up with five qualities of light in that one. 1. column light 2. CTO gelled flash 3. bare bulb flash 4. greenish reflections, right corner and middle left and 5. daylight reflection just right behind the big column. Ha! Every light source in my frame has a different quality! They only fit so well, because there is no white thing around (which wouldn´t look white anymore, but mashed-up with different blobs of color) and because they alre all included in an almost black surrounding. Therefore, each light source can work for its own purpose.

Flashes were a Canon 550 EX with umbrella, powered down to 1/4 if I remember correctly and an old 80´s Braun Ultrablitz (Guide No. 38) at 1/4 power or so. Not that important. You´d figure it out yourself anyway, because you´d use different flashes. Plus, distance greatly influences light quality and quantity, so you can adjust lighting by moving your heads instead of screwing around with power settings that maybe you don´t even get from the flash of your choice (therefore I avoid saying "oh, you need to power your flash down to 1/256th. This is of absolutely no help to you. It depends on latitude, time of year and day, location, weather and about EVERY factor imaginable whether a GNo.42 flash at 1/16th power 2.66 meters away with a silver umbrella and two Sky Blue gels will do the job to your taste or not).

Had I not done the daylight/tungsten trick with white balance and gels, Katie would not be catching the eye, competing against the big white light source that the column is. Balancing colors like this makes for an interesting shot with clear focus on warm skin tones. Of course, the contrast between her pastel summer clothes and the harsh, cold environment she´s standing in, helps a lot.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Photographer Gets Bored

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

You need:

- a camera
- a macro lens or any close-up arrangement, be it a close-up lens or macro rings
- a black oven tray
- a habanero chili or whatever fruit you like
- a window
- daylight
- maybe a tripod

Put the oven tray flat on a chair before the window. The black finish gives you an interesting structure whilst being reflective enough to mirror the blue daylight sky.
Arrange the fuit of your choice on the oven tray and look for a camera angle so that you see the skylight reflect from the tray. You can add a bit of fill light with a piece of paper or white cardboard, if you like.

You should use a macro set-up, because this´ll not only let you get in real close, but also keep background sharpness fading away quickly. You wouldn´t want anybody to notice that you set your shot up on a stupid oven tray, would you?

That´s it. Take your shot. The oven tray reflects the sky and that gives you the blue backdrop. Fruit usually isn´t blue (since blue is a poison color) which gives an interesting contrast for your shot. [If it is (like blueberries or prunes) there´s still a lot of potential there, since contrast isn´t everything ;-) ]

Here´s the real trick: I chose a yellow habanereo chili. It´s not only really hot to eat but also it´s YELLOW. That´s why I could force the camera into incandescent white balance without losing the natural look of the fruit. Yellow colour won´t be ruined by a yellow-ish white balance, it will still look natural. This´ll make the reflections turn real blue, because the camera then expects to see warm lightbulb light and gets filled with blueish daylight reflections. Yup, turns super-blue there.

Ususally, the direct reflections of daylight on that oven tray are sufficiently blue to look great and contrasty. But don´t stop there and play with your white balance settings. Get a good shot and change the settings. You surely will get another one.

Have Fun!


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Catch some summer light

Today I´d like to show you some nice and easy way to get the look that is so up-to-date in everybody´s commercials these days. It´s some old-fashioned photographic effect that looks alot like 1970´s photography. The thing is to get some light in your lens - technically this screws your colors up a lot and degrades the overall contrast of the picture.

I was asked to shoot a friend of mine together with her siblings as a present for grandma´s birthday. We started late (we all had to work) and arrived at the set about 7.30pm. The last of sunrays entered the park. The weather was cloudy and there was not too much left, so I had to go up to ISO 400 for a decent f-stop ("decent" means "get all persons in focus while keeping background nicely diffused"). Ended up with f/6.3. I put the three on a bench so that the weak sunrays would make a smooth kicker in the hair, dialed in the cloudy white balance to warm things up. I took a GN58 flash (GN = guide number), slapped a half CTO on it for some extra warmth, tied it to the camera with a sync cable and fired it at 1/8th power, manual mode through a small white umbrella 1,5 meters away from the three. I first put it camera right, but ended up putting it camera left. It seemed helpful to illuminate all three faces from their front.
I ended up with 1/60th sec exposure time to catch some ambient light, fired the flash on second curtain and held my breath. Eighty times. Thanks, digital!

Well, this looks absolutely nice and there´s nothing wrong with that picture. In fact, I have a book about outdoor lighting that I paid money for, yet it features much less beautiful pictures. Me:book author 1:0.
 Having made eighty or so shots, we noticed that there was a sunspot coming up a few meters behind me. So I grabbed my flash tripod and directed everyone over there into the sunlight.

I got back to standard lighting where the main light comes from the direct opposite of the kicker light, so I placed the flash camera right. Dialed it up to 1/2 power, went down to 1/100th sec (reducing the ambient light) and stayed with the 6.3. There, the light comes alive! And since sunlight enters the lens, the colors go a little crazy. Although there´s a bench and a footway in the frame, the background looks much more interesting, because the leafs catch light and the sun flare livens up the otherwise dull cold-green trees. As soon as I was sure that I had made some good shots, I decided to go a little lower and actually show the sun in the frame.

´ere ya GO! Got warm look! Got a beautiful kicker light! Got crazy colors! Got nice flare! Got great skin tones! No more stupid bench and grey footway! I dialed the flash to full power and went down to 1/250th sec, nicely balancing sunlight and flash light and reducing shake (which there was in the first shot). There is cool shade in the foliage to the right, but no way anyone will notice it because the rest of the picture has such a nice summer look.
Got no sun? Get flashlight in your lens!

If you´re cool: check your lights with a digital camera and then shoot film ;-)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shooting HD Video with the EOS 5D MkII

I have been lucky to shoot a short film written by a good friend of mine. He managed to get a EOS 5D MkII, for which I already have a few lenses, so things started pretty good. So I took my film and TV experience, a trunk full of equipment and we went to work.
We went into a few hours of test shooting a week before the actual filming. The experiences I made led to important equipment decisions which I would like to share with you.

Yeah, laugh at me. Without my trusted dark cloth, I would not have seen anything in the light of day on that monitor. Especially not critical focus!

First thing I noticed (and was really scared of):
It really is! Maybe you have heard about the fact, that depth of field (DOF) decreases with the size of the sensor / film you use. When you shoot with your cell phone, which has a tiny sensor, everything will always be in focus. Opposite for, say, large format film, where you will even shoot at f/45 for a portrait with decently small depth of field. I will not explain that in detail, but you see, same goes for video. Shoot with one of these hand-held camcorders, which have usually a 1/3-inch-sensor (about the size of a cell phone button), everything´s in focus. Shoot 35 millimeter film and you get very shallow DOF - in fact so shallow that there must be someone taking care of focus. A full-frame DSLR sensor is even bigger and DOF shrinks to a practical minimum. For example, with a 100mm lens at f/5.6, subject distance 55cm (like in a close-up of a face), DOF is 1mm wide!  You see, in a movie, things move. So do the actors, so does the camera. You guess: things get even more complicated. IMAX and Cinemascope might of course be more delicate, but in the world of affordable filmmaking, this is as hard as it gets.

The camera cannot autofocus when filming. Anyway - it wouldn´t help you. It´s hard enough to autofocus on-the-spot in still photography and remember - in a movie, things move! Plus, if you look at your normal printing size for photos, remember that HD video is meant to be watched on a big screen (TVs are relatively big these days, too). Focus is much more critical than on a 10x15cm print.

Note the nice sturdy tripod. The flimsy one we had before didn´t even extend to a man´s eye level

Canon, of course, offers nice lenses that make beautiful sharp pictures and videos. But the focusing ring on most lenses only is a quarter turn from close to infinity. Movie and television lenses offer at least three quarters of a turn for their focusing range. In the close range, they are marked every couple centimeters. Google for "Zeiss Primes" or "Cooke Primes" to see some. Plus, before every shooting, the focusing devices (called studio rig or follow focus) are being calibrated to every lens. With these extremely shallow DOFs, even finding the right focus for a still shot is hard, hard and hard again. You cannot work with the camera´s display if you don´t have a loupe (and the display´s resolution is not high enough anyway). You need at last a 7" HD monitor with a sunshade attached to the camera. Still, it´s damn hard and I didn´t focus perfectly on many, many shots. Then, the damn HDMI cables are so stiff that they break either plug or socket at the camera. We sure had blue screen on that monitor 40% of the time, trying to nudge that f*ing connector into position. HDMI is far from being a tough connection.

So we have

Actress Andrea Schmitt poses for a final check of light, focus and makeup before shooting a macro of her eye as the opening sequence (between two blue screens from the dang HDMI cable). Note the focusing rig in my left hand, matte box, 7" monitor and tripod. No way to do this shot without any of these. Promise! Okay, except the matte box.  (Makeup Artist: Caroline Six - all credit for making perfect HD macro makeup!!)

Okay, so there´s a system that doesn´t really offer you a way to handle it in a "professional" way (professional means withstanding heavy abuse while working perfectly smooth before and afterwards). It doesn´t have handles, angles and interfaces to allow you to do what you must do during filming. It is super awkward holding it like you hold a DSLR during normal live-view photography. You cannot make beautiful movements and you cannot hold it still enough. Put it on a tripod? Yeah. But which one?

We ended up renting a 35-mm-tripod from Sachtler with a head large enough to hold and move 30 Kilos of camera. Those cost about 30,000 Euros or more, if you want to buy them. But for our project, this was necessary. The small Sony consumer photo tripod that came with the camera was so flimsy that the camera could not be panned or tilted in smooth ways. Full-frame DSLR HD Video (phew. let´s call it FFDSLRHDV from now on) is very, very demanding about movement, because the picture is so delicate and the focus is so fragile. You will see what I mean if you try it. Well, actually you will see what I mean if you replay scenes you thought were sharp on your HD television! The Sachtler head is so brilliant that it does almost all the work for you while you only give it the coarse direction on where to go. I operated it on second lowest friction (1) with no counterweight.

For shoulder camera, there was a Vocas shoulder rig, supporting the Chrosziel matte box, the follow focus, the camera and the monitor. Shoulder pad and handles can be quickly removed to go for tripod action. No way to make good handheld shots without it! You can find some similar items on ebay, they make them in india for a fraction of the price. Of course, you can also use the sunshades that came with your lenses instead of the matte box. But then you lose the capability to use 4x5.6 filters that you can rent along and need to go for filters that fit the lenses.

The Vocas shoulder rig in action!

You seem to be able to crank ISO up as needed without getting too much annoying noise. Our test shooting revealed that I could go up to ISO 1250 without having any visible noise. I checked it on a HD CRT television and on a huge plasma screen. Noise in video is pretty self-concealing. We are used to seeing film grain in a movie, so it´s no big deal.

The thin DOF in FFDSLRHDV makes beautiful portraits and the Canon lenses (use high-class primes, if you can) are sharp and give a great look.

You can use your favourite white balance. I shot the whole film in cloudy WB to give it some warmth right out of the camera.

The camera´s controls do the same for video as they do for photography.

EOS cameras and lenses are way cheaper to rent than any other video camera. And they are only fractions of the retail price of a video camera that can capture images of similar elegance.

I´m not going to talk about light or sound here. You need at least a sunbounce to add some light to taste. If you go shoot, get yourself someone to do the lighting and someone to do the sound. Don´t use the camera mic or the hotshoe mic if you have dialogue. It´ll sound like from a point-and-shoot-digicam Youtube vid. Plus: if you don´t use USM lenses, the rattle of the focusing motor will register on the sound track REAL loud, even rendering your ambient sound useless.

thanks for reading. comments and questions welcome!

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Photographer Gets Bored

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

click to enlarge

 You need:
- a camera 
- a manual focus lens, preferably a macro lens
- a tripod

- a black background (with or without structure according to taste)
- wine or substitute liquid
- a buddy to pour the wine
- two white canvases or two reflector panels or one white wall
- a VERY thoroughly polished wine glass
- table mat and rubber eraser (explained later) 
- two flash heads that can sync toghether in any way
- cable shutter release, if possible

Set up the glass before your background. If the background is supposed to show surface structure, put it wherever the flashes throw light at it. If not, put it further away so it will become blurred and mostly black. In my shot, I again took my sister-in-law´s famous tax folder and decided to show its nice structure. Of course, you can also take a piece of wood or a curtain if you like to give it a more vivid color. Black is the easiest way to get a neutral contrast against the red wine.

The background surface must be white, because it will reflect the flash light. This lights the glass in the "commercial" way: it creates white outlines while the rest of the glass remains dark. You can see the canvases I took as the bright stripes shaping the glass, the bottle and the flowing wine. You can also see the flashes themselves upper left and lower right (in fact you can even see my arm holding the upper left flash in the reflection as well as some strange soft reflections I didn´t care about since this setup was done right before dinner; I was hungry and in a hurry. It can be done much, much more perfectly!).
The flashes show because they were too close to the camera. My shot is far from perfect. It was done for fun and I made it like this:

If you want to do it right, without uncontrolled reflections, you need to go this way:

...and keep everything else in your room as dark as possible. Shoot with your camera´s highest flash sync speed, so the ambient / working light will not show. Remember: flash light is so short that ambient light will only register when you let it in through the shutter that remains open after the flash exposure.

Of course, you can also go the other way round! Give it a white backdrop that you light with flashes and keep the rest of the background dark. This gives you a white glass with black outlines, since the glass always catches and projects the surrounding. The wine and bottle will also look different, because the light now comes from behind it instead of left and right.

Now you can choose to do a clean shot, doing a lot of tests, carefully lighting, emptying and cleaning the glass everytime you take a picture or you can simply set things up and shoot away. My shot way done the latter way, set up in ten minutes and the first shot actually was the best. Looking back, you will notice that the picture looks great either way.

You need to work with flash if you want to freeze the motion of the wine. If you accept blur, you can also take conventional light sources. If you must use lamps because you don´t have a flash and want to freeze the motion, you will need either high ISO or really strong lamps. Else, your shutter speed will be too long.

If you want to have your glass slanted like I did, you should get it fixed. Else, it might fall over from the force of the pouring wine. You cannot slant your camera here because gravity dictates the angle of your bottle and the flow of the wine. The picture would look strange with a straight glass and a slanted camera. A table mat and a rubber eraser should provide enough friction to keep things steady.

Don´t forget to play with your white balance! Try sunlight, cloudy, flash, shade and even incandescent white balance. It might give the wine and bottle the right edge in color. Maybe it´ll just surprise you and you´ll learn something new about how to crank your camera in a new way.

Have fun shooting away! Oh, and by the way: I shall be glad to receive comments and links to photographic work by people inspired by my blog! Give me some feedback, come on! :-) And be shameless to copy my work! I want you to do that.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Spice Up your B/W Photography with Filters!

Have you ever tried black and white photography? It´s a great way to express your understanding of shades, shapes and contrast without having to care about stupid colors. But you can use the colors of your subject to spice things up a little or even go completely crazy.


- Add a color filter on the lens (the only way to filter on B/W-Film)
- Add a color filter on the enlarger (when you shoot color negative and expose on B/W paper)
- Use your digital camera´s built-in filter (they "filter" from their RGB pixels, then turn the picture into monochrome)
- Shoot digital color, then use Photoshop for conversion and filtering.
- Convert all the light in your shot to the color of the desired effect (of course, this is nonsense. But it would work the same way!)

Using color filters in B/W changes color and contrast ratios before the (still colored) light reaches the film. The color of the filter enhances light of the same or similar color and reduces light from all contrasting colors. Adding a red filter gives you more density from red colors and less green. Adding a yellow filter gives you more yellow and less blue. And so on. To illustrate this, I shot a Red Habanero (the queen mum of all peppers) against a bed of green parsley, using my 40D´s built-in color filters (click to enlarge):

The green filter turns the red fruit almost black. Red and green add up to a vvery dark hue. The red filter makes it bright and shiny, far too much in fact. Orange and yellow filter work in the same way, but give a much more decent result in this case.
Note how the camera´s filters seem not to affect the parsley at all. Seems that its´ colors are somehow out of range of color filtering (I know this can´t be). Something I have to check some other day.

What about portraits? I used ´shop to filter a color portrait I made to four different kinds of

Note how the blue filter makes a portrait look ill somewhat. The red specks and freckles really stand out. Yuck! The green filter helps the skin in a natural looking way. That´s why it has always been the standard filter for portrait photography. Compare it to the standard B/W conversion of Photoshop. The Red filter, again, overdoes what it´s supposed to do. Sometimes this looks nice, but it almost equalises all the facial features (including the red lips) to a flat, bright surface. You must really want that in order to filter red. A yellow filter does similar things, so does the orange one, therefore I did not picture them here.

Here you can see how mad things get when the colors are vivid! Again, this is Photoshop filtering. See what the blue filter does to the blue egg cup? Likewise, the egg itself behaves like human skin and gets smoothed by red and green filtering and roughened by blue filtering. Green, again, looks pretty much like standard B/W-conversion, so I show you the original image instead.

THE BIG ADVANTAGE OF PHOTOSHOP HERE is, that you can choose predefined filters as well as your own custom colors from the whole palette, change its density and go crazy in every other way, including mixes of hues and colors for filtering. This would mean to the analog photographer, that he´d have to carry at least three densitys of every color filter with diameters fitting every lenses´ mounting ring... oh, wait. I forgot that analog photographers are smart. They know what they want to do before they leave home, then choose their equipment and then go shoot away. I´m sorry! ;-)
Here´s another one from the ´shop. Look how the red filter (replacing a yellow filter that, again, would give a more natural look) helps darken the sky, making it look really interesting:

Back in the old days, film was orthocromatic. It was only sensitive to blue light. You know, the days when you could have a red lamp on in your darkroom all the time. This helped portraits and made nature shots look really, really natural. Today we have panchromatic film, which is sensitive to all of the visible spectrum. Of course, digital sensors also behave that way.

Get yourself a pair of yellow filters. Maybe two densities, maybe two diameters for your favourite lens. This helps skin tones, makes leafs shine bright, brings out nature´s colors and darkens the blue sky a bit, which makes things generally more interesting-looking. Also, this is the way, B/W photography was intended to be made. If your camera meters through the lens, you don´t have to care for anything else. If you use a rangefinder or hand-held meter, look for the filter compensation factor either in the manual that comes with it or on the metal filter ring. It tells you how much light the filter blocks (x2 = 1stop, x4=2 stops etc), then you can auto-compensate for that by changing the ASA/DIN setting on camera or meter (e.g. film is 100ASA/21DIN, filter says "x2" -> set meter to 50ASA/18DIN and it will work together with the filter).

 Today, you can find a set of three fancy filters for some 20 Dollars on ebay. Don´t buy these. They are made from cheap glass or even plastic. Imagine taking out your favourite sharp, contrasty lens and screwing a bad glass in front of it. This deprives the lens of everything you like it for. Really, it doesn´t pay. Save the money for a few rolls of film and go for one of the brand names. Same goes for the UV filters that everybody puts on to "protect" their lenses.

A friend of mine used to carry his camera with a brand UV (or "skylight") filter attached to his lens all the time. While travelling, the camera bag dropped some 80 centimeters from the train seat. Upon arrival, he found that this little impact (in a protective soft camera bag!!) had blown the UV filter to glass dust. Needless to say, he had to throw away the bag, and was barely able to save his lens and camera - he still shakes glass dust out of it sometimes. Protection filter, huh?