I’m sticking with the pool theme for this post. We recently were invited to swim at a friend’s pool (cheers all around from the kids) and I decided to lug the camera along to get some pictures. It was 5pm and the sun was high in the sky. Fortunately when the kids were on the diving board the sun was slightly behind — meaning that if I could manage to get *enough* light reflected off the kids’ faces it would at least be *even-ish* light. Coming up with that light — while saving the background somewhat — was the first challenge then.
The next challenge was the huge dynamic range in the skin tones. In the song “Jesus Loves The Little Children” the line goes “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”. We didn’t have “yellow” but we had red, black, and white figuratively speaking. If you light for the lightest skin the darkest skin might be way too underexposed. Expose for the darkest skin and the lightest gets completely blown out in the bright sunlight. The challenge was to maintain the best balance in the situation — via my camera and flash settings.
My gear: Canon 5D mkii, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L, and Canon 580exii flash gel’ed with a 1/4 CTO. I started out using shutter speeds of 1/200 to 1/250s to stay within the sync speed of the flash. This was reasonable for much of the action and gave me quite a bit of flash power, which I needed when shooting from these distances (50′+). Remember that the light follows the inverse square law — double the distance and you are only left with 1/4 the light. Later I switched to using high-speed sync which allowed shutter speeds up to 1/500s to freeze the action but reduces the power that the flash can put out. Both methods were effective in their own way. With the 5D mkii I also had ISO as a lever. I didn’t want to go too high with it (but I did use up to 3200 some of the time). A higher ISO also reduces the need for so much flash power but you pay in noise. Note that sometimes when using flash in bright light you *can’t* go very high with the ISO because the flash sync speed is a “long” shutter speed (relative to the overall brightness in the scene) and is allowing a lot of light to hit the sensor. In summary, I can’t tell you what the “best” settings are for a situation you might be shooting, but hopefully I’ve given you enough info to jump start your thoughts and get you experimenting with it. Keep in mind that in the evening the light changes rapidly so you’ll have to adjust for that as well.
In Lightroom I still had to use an adjustment brush to even out the exposure of the faces a bit (in most pictures). All in all, I was very happy with the way they turned out. The important parts of the backgrounds were preserved and the kids are exposed well enough. There’s always plenty of room for improvement though.
As much as I don’t want to post my mistakes — especially the really stupid ones — they can be helpful to look back on and point out to others. It depends on the natural light situation of course, but in a portrait like the one above I often use a single strobe through, or reflected from, an umbrella placed above-camera. This may be to provide a catchlight in the eyes, a bit of fill in the eye sockets, some overall light, or all of the above. I occasionally use a bare strobe (well, sometimes with a gel but no other modifiers) to give a hint of a rim light on the shoulders to help separate the subjects from the background. My daughter typically holds this in position behind the subjects when I use it. During a recent family portrait shoot on the grounds of the Texas Capitol I pulled a real boneheaded move with this light.
Just before we shot the pose above (which fortunately wasn’t the “preferred” pose) I got my rim light strobe out of the bag and quickly tested that everything was working (flash on, remote trigger operational, my guesstimated manual power set). All was well so I dropped it in the grass and we set to arranging people and reminding the kids not to watch the squirrels running around. We shot a bunch of frames to make sure we caught everyone looking their best-ish and moved on to our next pose. I had decided not to use the rim light because the separation from the background seemed fine.
To my horror, when I loaded the pics up on the computer at home, I noticed that all the shots of this pose had a bright light in the grass and two of the subjects were lit like they were being blasted by the sun. Well, they *were* being blasted — by my portable sun as you see in the picture below. I had left it turned on and the trigger active…probably at 1/4 power. Oops. I couldn’t believe I had not noticed this while chimping my test shots. My (young) daughters didn’t point it out — one didn’t even notice and the other assumed that I intended to use the flash that way.
Needless to say it was a big mistake. While this was not the ideal pose we wanted to keep one from this set. I was fortunate enough to have a reasonable fixable frame in the bunch so I went to work. Switched a head, toned down some of the effects from the misplaced strobe, and made the other usual edits. I believe the photo *is* completely salvageable given enough effort and time and I may work on it for practice in the future.
Lesson learned. Chimp and look around the *whole* frame – Check everything…check again.
Circle C Ranch is a development near our house and the neighborhood is known for its great Christmas light displays. I took three of the kids out last night and drove the streets (along with lots of other cars). We stopped at two locations to grab a quick portrait. I brought red, blue, and green gels in hopes of matching the flash to the lights somewhat — I had mixed success but since our purpose was to view the lights I didn’t spend any extra time attempting to perfect the shots. I dialed down the flash way down in hopes of making the images look more like they were lit by the surrounding Christmas lights. There’s a tell-tale shadow of course but I’m not trying *hide* the fact that flash was used, just match the lighting (and its brightness) to the environment.
The kid’s favorite house is one they call “the jungle”. The displays (front and back yards) are walk-through and have all manner of decorations from a nativity scene to Elvis to the Grinch to Winnie the Pooh to…everything you can think of. For as long as I can remember, the neighbor to the jungle has put up a “Ditto” sign. Funny.
The next shots were taken in the backyard of “the jungle”. The nativity scene used bare flash handheld on a sync cord and the other shot used a red gel on the flash to match the lights. I could have used a different color — the main idea was to prevent the flash from lighting the kids with daylight (bare flash) while they were standing in the middle of the colored lights. I wish I’d had a red gel which was slightly weaker…
Finally, an out of focus shot in the back yard of “the jungle”.
We *tried* to take some portraits of my wife and daughter but not everyone was cooperating. Eden was a bit fussy when we posed her but I snapped off some frames anyway. This is image is one — the ONLY one — worth keeping. Despite being the only good image I call it an outtake because it’s not at all the image I was after. I like the expression on my wife’s face and Eden’s outstretched arms but it has a few technical issues. For starters, because I was shooting near wide-open and my wife was moving back and forth to rock the baby, the focus is a bit off. We’ll try again soon.
This was shot with two lights: a Canon 580EXii at about 1/16 power in a small softbox at camera left for the key light and a Canon 430EXii high, behind my wife at camera right for hair/highlight (1/64 power and gel’ed with some ND to kill more of the power). The background is a sheet we hung in the hallway (yep, I need to get some backgrounds). I started by setting an exposure which killed the ambient. Using my older daughter as a test subject I then added the key light followed by the hair light. The background is not lit because my intent was to make it pitch black.
Before even shooting this my intent was to process in black and white but I haven’t even attempted to go that route in processing yet. I tweaked some areas in Lightroom then brought the image into Photoshop. I used masked curves to brighten the hair, eyes (a tad), and a few areas of skin. I also used curves to darken a few areas. One final curve dropped the red channel ever so slightly. I sharpened the hair and used noise reduction on the rest of the image. That’s all I can remember anyway…
Here’s another version of the same image which I processed slightly differently. I can’t personally decide which I like best although I lean toward the one at the top of the post which blends subject/background relatively seamlessly.
Last month some of my family attended the wedding of my niece Jessica in Seattle. We would love to take the whole family to events like that but it’s just not practical in our case. The weather was what one might expect in Seattle — highs around 50 and wet.
I was asked to do some photography during the times when the paid photographer wasn’t around — rehearsal, early wedding morning — and grab a few extra pics at the reception. I had just acquired a Canon 5D Mark ii the day before we traveled and I got to try out its capabilities over the weekend. It has amazing low-light performance and I took full advantage of that.
Here are some pics from the weekend (here’s a link to one I already posted of the rings resting in the flowers). Some are just OK from a technical standpoint but are personally meaningful or interesting to our family.
The shot below was meant to focus on the ring (and it does) but it isn’t the greatest shot. However, I still like the general feel of it — soft light, very shallow depth of field so I included it. It was taken in passing as I wasn’t focused on taking pictures at that point. I’d love to have that opportunity again though. I’d get the ring hand fully in the shot, shoot from slightly higher to entirely fill the background with Jessica’s to-do list on the poster board while keeping the nail polish bottle fully in the frame as in this shot.
Some pics from the rehearsal:
The wedding coordinator was concerned that the main photog wouldn’t arrive at the house early enough to get pictures of the miscellany like the rings, flower, shoes, etc. so she asked me to get some shots. Here are a few I came away with besides the ring shot:
Pre-wedding pictures in church:
After the ceremony the wedding coordinator again commandeered me for a photo assignment. The hired photog was covering the bride and groom’s trip through the receiving line from a vantage point near the church doors. I was asked to cover near the end of the line and I’m glad I did — look at how happy they are!
During the reception I didn’t capture all that many shots but here are a few. Light was challenging in the reception hall. Bouncing flash was not that great (note the black ceilings) and I didn’t have 3 remote flashes on stands like the hired photog did. I still like the shots even with some of the shadows. I take comfort in knowing that there wasn’t a whole lot to be done without setting up extra lighting myself. I just kept a diffuser on the flash and pointed the flash either up and slightly forward or up and slightly behind me. As the night was winding down, Jessica asked me to take a picture of her with the bridesmaids up near the dance floor. I like how the light ended up just fine with the exception of how everyone’s hair disappears into the background. I didn’t have a second light to overcome that. When we walked to the front and lined up everyone and their brother got cameras out and started firing. Getting all the girls to look at me rather than the other cameras was a bit like herding cats. None of the shots had everyone looking normal so I just picked the best of the bunch.
A candid of my beautiful wife. When she finds out her picture is here I’ll probably be in trouble. She never reads my posts so please — none of you go telling her. She never needs to know
The main photog had already left the reception when Jessica and Jonathan were making their exit so once again the coordinator asked me to take shots. I had the 50mm lens on and there was no time to fetch my 24-70 or really test out the flash to adjust compensation. I’d prefer a little different framing but I was zoomed out (with my feet) as far back as I could get and I wanted to catch some of the flag waving too. I got off 4 frames as they walked out and they capture the moment just fine. There was very heavy tungsten lighting in this little hallway. My flash was gel’ed with a 1/4 CTO and I could get away with cooling the color temperature more but I decided not to eliminate it completely. It’s a dilemma I often struggle with — Whether to keep some of that uncorrected color in certain shots. It can be a nice effect sometimes.
Last Friday evening I joined Alex Suarez, Steve Wampler, and Sylvia Brogdon for an impromptu photo shoot outside the Palmer Events Center. They had just spent the day in the Flash Bus seminar put on by Joe McNally and David Hobby and wanted to practice what they’d learned to help cement it in their minds. I was not able to attend the Flash Bus event but I wanted to join in and learn what I could and get some practice myself. Our models were “Eight” and my daughter Evelyn. The location was the grounds of the Palmer Events Center in Austin, TX. It has many architectural features which lend themselves to unique portrait settings and there are different backgrounds to choose from on each side of the building.
As we got started, Steve talked about how David Hobby “lights in layers”. This is the process of building your setup one light at a time. Assuming a fixed shutter speed (at or below your max sync speed), start by picking the aperture which gives you the ambient light exposure you desire. The correct exposure is quite subjective of course — just find the one *you* want. You can darken the background somewhat or allow it to blow out. Next, add your main light and get it to the f-stop you want and in position. Finally, add fill as necessary and maybe even a rim light to light the hair or shoulders if you want.
We stuck with one or two lights and assisted each other by holding lights as we took turns shooting. I actually have as much fun helping with the shoot as I do taking the photographs and always enjoy the company too. We started out near the southwest corner of the building — very challenging due to the setting sun. The positive side of a situation like this is that it forces you think about solutions to the light problems, some of which equate to just going with it and trying to make interesting images with the light that is there, be it harsh or soft. The image at the top of the post was taken here with my daughter standing in the shadow of a large pillar. Shooting someone with very dark skin provides additional challenges as you need extra light to balance out the ambient and bring out the facial features. This extra light blows out light clothes (had that happen a lot) and sometimes other features like the pillar next to her. I shot in manual mode at 1/250s (max sync speed), did a few test shots without the strobe to pick my aperture (f/8) then began experimenting with light position and power. This shot had a strobe camera right, bare other than a 1/4 CTO gel, triggered with Elinchrom Skyports. I used my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS for all the portraits (love that lens for these situations).
We moved to the northwest corner of the build for a bit and I got the shot below. No strobe used in this portrait. Alex used a silver reflector to direct the sunlight to Evelyn’s face and I shot from down low to get a reasonable background. Aperture priority was used with an f-stop of f/4. The light was literally golden even off the silver reflector — made her skin look great.
Another mass migration of gear and bodies occurred as we relocated to the north side of the building. There was great shade and many choices for backgrounds including the Austin skyline. I shot this final portrait (below) at this location. I chose an aperture of f/9.5 and set up two lights. The main light was again a 1/4 CTO gel’ed bare strobe at camera right. The fill was a bare strobe (I didn’t have tape or velcro for another gel) placed on the ground in front of the camera. I placed the strobes on different Skyport channels and experimented with each separately to adjust them to taste. I had to lay out on the ground (see the pic by Alex Suarez at the bottom of the post) to get the composition I wanted (Evelyn + The Austonian + TX flag). I was somewhat limited due the angle required for my composition and the locations of some trees which blocked the flag if I moved out of this position. I would have liked the wind to blow the flag up a bit more but I took what I could get. Someday I’ll work on perfecting this shot. I would try two things for starters: (1) use a shoot-through umbrella with an assistant (no assistant was handy for this shot and it was too windy to set it up without an anchor) and (2) try a stronger CTO gel to warm up the subject to match the background better. I prefer the darker backgrounds but I think I’d experiment with backing off to f/8 or even f/7.1.
After shooting the skyline portrait, Sylvia and I were helping Steve shoot portraits of my daughter. In a moment of serendipity, Joe McNally and David Hobby walked out of the building. Our group bantered with them and Joe made a smiling comment on the order of “good luck with that portrait” as their group walked to a spot nearby. After a minute or so he and David Hobby just couldn’t stand watching us flounder so they came over, gave a few tips, and Joe McNally even held the strobe/umbrella for a couple of shots. That was cool. I think they took pity on us in the same way that we would a distressed animal — you just can’t stand watching it suffer
I had a lot of fun shooting with these folks and my daughter had a blast being the model (she’s asking to do it again). Hopefully soon…