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Archive for the ‘In The Field’ Category

Photo Shopping in Beijing

May 31

In In The Field at 4:05am


I traveled dangerously light to Beijing, gear wise. I knew I was heading into a bigger project than I had anticipated, but by the time I knew that, I was locked into a tourist visa, and the carnet was set. So whatever was listed there was what was coming. Nothing more.

Took in one D800E. Lenses were standard issue 14-24, 24-70, 70-200. On the exotic side, I took in my ancient 28 f1.4, a 35 f1.4, and an 85 f1.4. Done. My other camera was a (gulp) film camera, a Fuji pano, with a 40mm lens. I also had a little rangefinder, for wandering neighborhoods, which has not happened.

Not a recommended pack, truth be told, but I knew if the D800 went down, I could borrow some sort of Nikon here. So far, so good. One day of assigning to go, and everything has worked, though I did crack the viewfinder in the pano camera. Sigh.

Other stuff. Three SB-910 units, two Justin clamps, two PW PlusX units with cords, Lastolite micro speed light soft box, and an 8 in 1 umbrella, which just did squeeze into my suitcase. No light stands, or big shapers. No tripod. Three Iosafe external drives, cords, chargers, Lexar cards, readers, international power strip. The ever present Think Tank roller, and a Guru Gear backpack. Advil. Sunblock.

Given the new parameters of the production job I was facing, I recommended lighting to my client, citing a Profoto distributor here I hoped they would reach out to. They instead, unannounced to me, went out a bought a bunch of stuff, and sent it to my hotel room to make sense out of. There were some good things, like an Elinchrom Ranger, and a 59” Rotilux soft box. And a super boom, two stands of undetermined origin, no umbrellas, a small soft box with a Hensel adapter ring (that stayed in the box), a couple Manfrotto super clamps, which have gone unused, a pretty funky, spring loaded c-stand, and that’s about it. How to make all this work together as a coherent field kit?

Shopping! I went to this huge building, bulging with photo shops, called Wukesong. For three straight days, I was everybody’s darling in there. The amount of gear dripping from the walls in these bustling little shops is impressive, if strange of name.

First thing I did was purchase a couple of big rolling cases to go into the field with. My client did a smart thing, buying gear, but did not connect with the fact that you can’t take it in the manufacturer’s boxes onto location. Got two of the biggest rollers I could find. No names on the cases. Got two incredibly cheap umbrellas, a big reflective, and a smaller shoot thru. Grabbed a sizable beauty dish, and blessedly, found an Elinchrom coupler for it.

Dukes, a Beijing based writer/shooter, loaned me his Induro tripod, and I managed to find two camera plates for it. Gels? I found a sheet of “3200” in a shop that is the strangest shade of tungsten I’ve ever seen. Grabbed a generic reflector pan, as, strangely, the Ranger kit came without one. I had one sync cord that did come with the kit, and it has hung in there. Dukes also loaned me a circular reflector/diffuser that’s about two feet across.

But, my biggest problem was syncing with the Ranger pack. I had two PW units, but no way to plug them in, and there wasn’t a hope at Wukesong of finding PW to Elinchrom cords. I could have brought mine, but had no idea this was the lighting kit I would be presented with. So, I’ve simply been old school about it, hard wiring camera to pack when I can, and then radio triggering to an SB, clamped to the stand by the pack, and firing into the slave eye at low power. Rube Goldberg-esque, but it works.

Our Temple of Heaven day was typical, in that almost all the pieces came into play. We started in early morning  with a not great but not  bad quality of available light, and worked our way through beauty dish with a reflector, beauty dish with SB fill, beauty dish without diffuser sock, big reflected umbrella with two speed lights on TTL, and then, finally, good sunset light. We had two hours in the am with the monument pretty much to ourselves, and then two hours in the late afternoon, so we had to move fast. Stood down in the middle of the day, as the models would have been cooked in these gowns in the Beijing heat, and the Temple of Heaven is just chock-a-block with folks during the day. Many thanks to the supervisor who arranged all this! I met him, and thought, what a cool business card this dude must have: Supervisor, Temple of Heaven.

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In China

May 24

In In The Field at 8:06pm

Here in Beijing, scouting and prepping for what I hope might be one of the best assignments I’ve had in recent memory. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, during scout sessions, shooting a bit in one of my favorite places. Have a great holiday weekend, everybody!

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The Game of Ratios

Apr 9

In In The Field, Lighting at 7:43am

I do blogs about all manner of things photographic, but clearly, one subject I return to consistently is the nature and quality of light, both natural light and flash light. This is not unique to me, or this blog. Lotsa folks out there talkin’ bout flash. Big flash, small flash, up close, far away, here, there. What occasionally gets overlooked in the “all flash all the time” conversation is the importance of shutter speed. Now, folks who have been shooting for a while know the ins and outs of shutter speed, to be sure. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve taught a class and come up on a team in the field, trying to shoot inside a factory, and, because the class is about flash, they are using a “flash” shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, rendering the scene as utter darkness. They thus burden themselves with the task of lighting the whole damn factory. With two speed lights. This, I tell them, is not possible. And I say that with the complete certainty of one who has amassed a 30 year history of engaging in utterly Quixotic flash follies, doomed to irretrievably embarrassing failure even before I put my camera to my eye.

My opening comment, when I view a location foray such as I describe above about to go off the rails, is often something along the lines of, “Shutter speed is your friend.”

I shot both of the above for Kelby Training video that came to be titled, Making Pictures in Bad Weather. Trust, me, I didn’t head to Tampa with that title in mind. But it turned out that we were trying to shoot through the tail licks of an offshore hurricane, and hence, we bagged a lot of the locations, and found shelter. That class ended up being one of the most fun classes I’ve taught for the Kelby group. It was a hoot, and was just like being on location for a magazine and needing to get it done ’cause the editor who assigned us doesn’t give a rat’s ass if it’s raining anvils. You have to shoot pictures, and shoot through all manner of shit.

The two pix above were shot in the same tiny bathroom, and these views of that little room have very different feels to them. And the differences do stem from the different qualities of light. But, what enabled the difference was shutter speed.

First pass. Window’s glowing and available light dominates the room. One hot shoe flash employed, on the hot shoe. It’s cranked backwards and flying the light up the wall I’m leaning against. It fills the shadow side of the model, just a little. It’s running at low power, no light shaper, except the stock in trade dome diffuser. It bounces partially off the wall and partially off the ceiling. Adds detail, and that’s about it. It fulfills the classic definition of a fill light: A light you don’t notice until you turn it off.

Below is camera info.

And here is more specific flash info, off Nikon software….

The second shot is darker, moodier. No glowy window, and fairly heavy shadows. Reason for that is I chucked available light, and put a Quadra flash out in the rain, cloaked in a baggie, firing off a radio, with no light shaper. It is about 5 feet from the frosted pane of glass, and it’s just a simple blast of light. The frosted glass becomes my light shaper. And because I don’t let any available light in, all the exposure comes from the flash.

Again, camera info.

No coded flash info here, as it is a third party flash, and doesn’t communicate with the camera. But the Quadra is providing all the light, and is well within its power range and capability.

The flash style, power and direction are truly different, to be sure. But the real difference, to me, in the two shots is a simple shift in shutter speed. The f-stops are quite similar. Shutter speeds aren’t. In the open, window blown away version, the shutter speed is 1/8th, and in the more controlled, moody version, the shutter rang in at 1/250th.

Shifting the shutter enables the game of ratios, which is a game forever played on location. You walk in, and you observe what light already exists. Then you factor how much, or how little, of that light plays into your photo by cranking your way through the shutter speed dial. You can allow the natural light to dominate, and thus making your flash a bit player, a reserve coming off the bench, and not the star. Or you can use the shutter speed to snuff the light entirely, rendering darkness upon the land, which you then replace with custom made flash treatment.

A game we always play. What exists, and, what do we layer over what exists? The flash we bring to location can be an unseen infiltrator, a thief in the night. Or it can be a thundering herd. The thing to remember, always, is that the determining factor in how many flashes (if any at all) we take out of the damn trunk is the existing light, and it’s volume and quality.

As as  location “flash photographer” the most important light you always wrestle with is the ambient light. And when it comes to ambient light, shutter speed is the judge and jury, and your friend.

More tk….

For the technically minded, the gear used above was Nikon D4, 14-24 f2.8, 24-70 f2.8, Sb-900 speed light, and Ranger Quadra.









Just Stand Next to Moose!

Mar 15

In Friends, In The Field at 12:35pm

Wanna be a good landscape shooter? Just stand next to Moose Peterson at his next workshop. There was just this recent story that popped up in the New York Times, something about waiting for light to hit this waterfall In Yosemite. If it does, just right, it’s called “firefall,” and it is a coveted picture amongst landscape afficiandos, at least some of whom go around, collecting these famous vistas like ball cards.

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BTS Nat Geo….Crop, or No Crop?

Mar 11

In In The Field, Jobs at 4:32am

Another in a continuing set of blogs, parsing out a current National Geographic story on UAVs published in the March issue.

The way it was shot….

The way it ran…

When I tell some folks, who might be just starting to shoot jobs for money, that a client like Nat Geo sees every frame I shoot, they tend to blanche a bit. Every frame? Like, even the ones you don’t retouch?

Yep, good bad or indifferent, every frame goes to the magazine. Was like that in film days, and remains true now. (I say this as being a general rule of engagement with the yellow border gang, without knowing if some isolated photogs out there have a special arrangement with them. That could be possible.) But, for the workaday shooter in the employ of the magazine, you shoot it and ship it.

Which means of course the raw file. No PhotoShop, no retouching. The pix drop out of the camera onto a hard drive and thence into a FedEx package and onto 17th and M in DC. Most of your images are in fact like a stone you drop down a well. There’s a long period of silence, then a distant splash as they vanish from sight forever. Sometimes though, quite wonderfully, they don’t just drop unceremoniously out of the camera. Some actually strut outta your picture machine like a Vegas showgirl in full plumage, resplendent in seductive stilettos and fishnets, and all so sparkly and spangly they utterly bedazzle the bespectacled editors at the Geographic, who, I suspect, are a group who don’t get out much. They win their audition in stylish fashion, and thus gain entry, in all their colorful glory, onto the pages of the magazine. That happens to a rare few, actually.

But honestly, “dropping out of the camera” is a good description for most of your efforts. Thud! Mine in particular often bear a rough similarity to a bunch of rapid fire rabbit turds. There’s a bunch of them, they smell bad, and they get left behind.

They get left behind for good reasons, of course. The astute picture editors at Geographic are a pretty visually jaded bunch, having had many wonderfully stirring images pass their eyeballs. I can only imagine what goes through their heads as they plow through a take.  (“Christ, another beautiful sunset. What was this asshole thinking?”)  They seek only those images which impart difference and information in a truly distinctive way. If it’s just plain pretty, it generally closes out of town.

I thought I might have had one of those rare, meritorious, worthy of ink images with the frame atop the blog. It features one of the ” 50 best inventions of the year,” the Nano hummingbird, which flies and hovers just like a hummingbird and bears a video camera onboard. It is in the class of mini UAVs that are currently being experimented with and developed. The inventor, Matt Keenan, of AeroVironment, is a pretty brilliant guy, so, I thought, let’s get him with the machine. That was harder than you might expect.

Here’s the basics. It’s a programmed double exposure on a D3X. In brief, it’s got two small flash exposures, operating on different channels, during each exposure, a pair of LED lights attached to the bird (my suggestion), and a focus shift in between those exposures. First exposure was at a fast shutter speed. Second exposure was on bulb.

First exposure: A channel one deal, with a 24″ softbox on the Matt’s face, and then various hard flash splashed around the warehouse room to establish some sort of depth and context. These have various gels, and there is an ungelled flash rimming him. Shutter speed, 1/250 of a second. Didn’t want any cracks or slivers of light in the big room to bleed into the photograph. For the subject, he simply has to stand there, and look at the camera, UAV controller in hand.

Second exposure: On the same piece of, uh, film. Change channels on the commander to two. Two speed lights rigged to light the little birdie off to camera right. A main and a backlight. The hummingbird, LEDs alight, takes off from the inventor’s feet, and flies in its herky jerky way over to semi-hover in front of the camera lens. Focus has been shifted from the human to the bird. Click. Camera processes double exposure. Check LCD. Re-do. Digital definitely facilitated this. If I had to shoot this on film, I’d still be there. Each flight was between 5 to 10 seconds, and the LEDs carve a pattern in the blackness.

Here’s Cali and Drew in position for lighting purposes, with Drew doing his best hummingbird imitation.

Of course, the hummingbird we worked with was a singular prototype, so we were lucky to get a picture at all, and the thing didn’t break. And, being a prototype, its flight path, as you can see above, was on the unpredictable side. (It has evidently made great strides since this time in terms of endurance and precision of flight.) And of course, yours truly just flat out missed it a couple of times, as it buzzed its way past my ear.

But we got the deal done, and shipped it, un-retouched to the mag. It ran, as I hoped it would, but only as, really, the second exposure. In the published version, the focus is on the bird, not the inventor. Which is okay by me. Once you surrender a picture to a magazine, it is under their purview, not yours.

So….here’s your chance to art direct a bit. Cropped version? Uncropped version? Which do you prefer? Which tells the story better?

More tk….