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Archive for the ‘Tips & Tricks’ Category

F-Stop, Shutter Speed: A Powerful Combination

Jul 22

In On Location, Tips & Tricks at 7:01am

When you first take a camera in hand, this black box with a lens on it can seem to be a glaze inducing riot of numbers, symbology, and menu options. 2.8, 4, 5.6, plus or minus 2 EV……..if you’re not numerically inclined, there is, to say the least, potential for confusion. The shutter speed dial has more logic, right? Twice or half, depending on which way you turn it. Initial forays in making f-stops and shutter speeds work together like a seamless duo, to produce dependably predictable results, can induce one to look shiftily around the room, making sure nobody is watching, and quietly dialing the camera over to “P” mode. Just go and shoot. Let the camera do the math.

But that’s like not voting on election day, and then complaining about the result. The camera’s brain can average things out, at least most of the time, reasonably well. But what it can’t do is interpret the numbers and see potential for those numbers, working together, to produce a different look, or looks. It’s like asking an adding machine to write an essay.

The three pictures below were all shot in the same hallway. The location is the same, but the math of each picture is different.

Read the rest of this entry »

Prepping for the 4th!

Jun 19

In Tips & Tricks at 3:55am

I’m checking focus on a Nikon F in this picture. It was 1983, and I was about to shoot the 100th Anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge from a rooftop in Brooklyn. There’s an F3 and an F2 on the twin cam platform, so I am basically out with the whole family. Poking into the pic on the right was the finder for my Hassy, which was fitted with an 150mm lens, and ultimately produced the picture you see below. I got the stache going on, and my Sony Walkman blasting out the traffic noise, and I’m just locking and taping things down, sighting cameras, and generally getting ready for the mayhem of of the biggest fireworks displays–ever.

Which was orchestrated by the redoubtable Grucci Family, the first family of fireworks. Based out on Long Island, this family has had explosives in its blood since 1850. In an early assignment for Discover Magazine, I was sent out to the island to shoot some pictures to support a story about the science of fireworks. It was like visiting a munitions depot.

Thank goodness for decent available light. No flash allowed near the warehouse, which was basically a large grenade with doors on it. (Indeed, the Grucci’s had a terrible, accidental explosion in 1983, which cost two family members their lives, and caused them to move the warehouse to a more secluded location.)

As evening approached, I coaxed mom and dad Grucci out into a field that contained barrels where they tested and exploded various rockets and the like. As an early experiment in flash photography, I put a Norman 200B low, into their faces, and another just in front of the barrel, gelled warm, hopefully lighting up their backsides like a firework blast.  I think I got one frame that worked, and the magazine loved it. Kodachrome. One frame. No replays. No LCD. Had to wait for the mag to call and tell me they liked this kind of mildly strange portrait of a wonderful, elderly couple in front of something that was getting blown up.

But, around this time of year, in preparation for the coming 4th of July, I reprint a chapter from the LIFE Guide to Digital Photography, in which I wrote about hopefully most of the nuances and details of shooting fireworks.  

Everybody loves to shoot fireworks. It has lots of connotations—holiday, patriotism, hot dogs, weekend, kids, family. Time to relax. Time to shoot some pictures.

Okay, make a checklist. Camera. Wide angle zoom. Telephoto zoom. Flash cards. Cable release. Spare camera battery. Tripod. Headlamp, and hand held flashlight. Watch with timer function. Black card. (More on that later.)

That’s pretty much the photo kit. What else to think of? Rain gear, both for cameras and you. You can get fancy rain gear designed for cameras and lenses, or just use plastic bags and baggies. Couple of bungee cords to keep the bags on the camera if the wind starts whipping about. Water and power bars—you’ll be out there a while. Bug repellent. Comfortable clothing and shoes. The car might be quite a ways away, and you’ll be walking a fair piece.  Advil. (Advil is always on my equipment list.)

Anything to do beforehand? You bet. Scout the location. Best to know what you are getting into, where they shoot the fireworks from, what the background will be like. How big will the display be? How long will it go for? Most fireworks displays are well over in a half hour or less, and if you are stumbling around in the crowd looking for a spot and trying to setup in the dark, you’ll just be starting to make decent exposures as they light up the sky with the crescendo and say goodnight till next year.

That’s right, next year. Most big shoot ‘em ups are yearly events. Argh, the pressure!

So scout. Get your spot. Get there early. I mean early. Like, be the first car in the parking lot. Pack a soft cooler sling bag, throw an icepack in there, and know that in that bag is your sustenance till maybe late at night. For jobs like this, my Ipod and earphones are a must. Maybe a collapsible chair, and a small waterproof tarp. Think your way into this. What could go wrong? It’s a photo shoot, so the answer to that is, just about everything. Try to ensure success by envisioning the shot and the potential problems in making the shot before you walk out the door.

Like, do you need a permit to put your tripod down? Did you have to call the town about this adventure? Most likely not, but in this post 911 world, photographers are often treated as being just this side of a recidivist offender, so it might be worth a phone call.

Okay, prepped and ready. Time to frame up the shot, which is a bit trickier than you might think. First off, when I shoot fireworks, I always get my frame, plus about 20%. I can always tighten up, but I want to give those fireworks room to play up there in the heavens. Frame too tight, you’ll have tracer lines of color going right out of the upper part of your picture, creating lines of interest that will pull your viewer’s eye right out with them.

So give them room to breathe and determine whether the shot is horizontal or vertical. Remember that most fireworks pix, if they are just of the explosions in the sky, are, at the end of the day, an exercise in color, nothing more. Even something as splashy as a pyrotechnic display needs context. So perhaps you can frame up with the object that is being celebrated, such as the Statue of Liberty. Or use the semi-silhouetted crowd as a foreground element. Or boats and bridges out in the water, with the water acting as a giant reflector board filled with color.

The variations that may occur with your framing are the reason to have at least a couple lenses with you. As mentioned above, two reasonable zooms, one wide and one telephoto, should do you fine.

Metering? Yikes, how do you meter a fast moving rocket moving through the black sky? The answer is, you don’t, really. This is a situation to shut off a bunch of the auto this and that on the camera, and go manual. Also, make sure to turn the flash off. Some cameras will read the darkness in in certain modes and activate that puppy. Ever see the opening of an Olympics, where thousands of people are using point and shoots, and their flashes are going off like crazy? Know what they’re lighting? The shoulder of the person in front of them. Fireworks, unless you are trying a radically different approach, are generally a no flash zone.

Okay, now set up manual. Fireworks are brighter than you might think, so you don’t need to open the lens really wide, which is a bit counter-intuitive, I know, ‘cause it’s dark. But my experience with fireworks wide open is that you drain the color out of them. They’ll just register as a white streak. Be careful. You can over-expose fireworks quite easily.

F8 is a reasonable starting point. Some photogs I know go even lower on the aperture scale, down to f11 or even f16. Over time, you will find which settings work for you. (I used to take notes at the end of a fireworks job, just to keep myself tuned up for next year. No real need for that anymore, as the metadata tells you what works and what doesn’t.)

Set the shutter to bulb. This mode keeps the shutter open as long as the release button is pushed. But you are not physically pushing that button are you?! No! This is absolutely a job for a cable release. Nowadays, most cable releases are simply electric cables which jack into the camera and activate the shutter. When you punch the button on the cable release the shutter is at your command, and will stay open as long as you want. And, very significantly, the button you are pushing is not on the camera or the tripod. With lengthy exposures, even the slightest jiggle or vibration is the enemy.

This is important, because at f8, the shutter will be open for a while, meaning anywhere from four to 10-15 seconds. (Remember if you have a foreground element in the picture, such as a monument, you have to make sure that lit up monument is exposed properly. In many ways, that foreground object will determine the length of your exposure.)

Again, due to the brightness of fireworks, you can work at a reasonable or even low ISO. Something in the neighborhood of 100 or 200 will do fine. The faster your ISO, the shorter your shutter speeds, which will deprive you of recording those wonderful tracers of light into the sky.

Some shooters time the launch of the rockets and open their shutter accordingly, keeping it open for, say, 8-10 seconds, then closing down. This ensures that they will record the path of the pyrotechnic into the night sky, and it’s explosion. This is a fine approach. Give it a try.

Others use a black card. A black card is just that, a black card. Nothing mysterious or fancy. It can be a piece of black cardboard, or foam core board. Or it can just be an index card covered with black tape. (Be sure it is not shiny tape. That might pick up slivers of light and reflect it back into the lens.  Use a matte black type of photo tape, often called gaffer tape.)

This way, you can keep your shutter open for very lengthy periods of time, and record multiple starbursts. You open the shutter, and shoot one explosion, then cover the lens with the card, and wait for the next. You can experiment with this trick, and produce really terrific results by layering multiple fireworks into one picture.

(Also, say, you have the Brooklyn Bridge as an architectural element in the foreground, and the proper exposure for it is f8 at 10 seconds. This limits your fireworks shooting range, right? Gotta get the bridge right, so the exposure is a done deal. But, with the black card, if you are quick enough, you can uncover just the upper portion of the sky, while blocking the area of the lens which is recording the bridge. This is dicey. You have to move the card quickly, hovering it around where the bridge ends and the sky begins. If you have ever made a black and white print in the darkroom, think of this as burning and dodging right at the camera lens. Can’t keep the card static or it will create a hard line of obvious exposure change. It has to hover, quickly jiggling around that sky bridge borderline. If you pull this off right, you can keep your lens open for several batches of fireworks, extending over 20-30 seconds, filling the sky with color. But—this is an  experiment! Back yourself up by shooting some “straight” frames.)

At the beginnings of the digital rage, this technique was a bit problematic, because seriously lengthy exposures produced a lot of digital noise. The longer the shutter is open, the longer the chip is “on” building up heat with every passing second. That sensor heat would really fray away at the quality of the digital file you would be trying to produce. Bad news. Long time exposures were the Achilles heel of early digital cameras. Predictably, advances in digital camera technology have smoothed out a lot of those problems, but it is wise to experiment with your particular model and see what its’ tolerances are. As you might suspect, the higher end models handle long exposure well, while the more basic cameras will have limitations. Get to know what your camera is capable of. In many current cameras, you can turn on a function called “long exposure noise reduction.” Hugely helpful.

Other bits and pieces: Don’t shoot all night long at one exposure. (If you are on bulb, you definitely won’t anyway.) But this is an occasion for bracketing, and shooting as many frames as possible. Also, shoot right away when they start! Fireworks displays can build up a lot of smoke over a series of explosions, and if you are smack in the wind pattern that blows that smoke towards your lens, you can end up thinking you’re shooting a war zone. So shoot immediately, and fast.

Have a wonderful, safe 4th of July, everybody! More tk…





Staying Organized..

Oct 11

In Advice, Equipment, Tips & Tricks at 8:28am

Always a challenge, right? Photogs–we’ve all got our bits and pieces, our favorite gadget, our go to, get out of jail free light or lens that saves our butt in the field. We accumulate all this stuff, and travel with it, and just keeping up with it sometimes seems to be half the battle.

If you know anything about the way we travel, it’s that we generally have a good chunk of gear.  And with that gear comes an utter mess of cords, batteries, flashes, lenses, stands, etc.- if we don’t have a good organizational system intact.  So it seems as though every few months, we’re coming up with new ideas, altering our packouts, and just trying to make traveling with a bunch of stuff as painless as possible.

Which leads to this…


We typically travel with two wallets of gels: color correcting and theatrical, and until recently, we had been using old leather business card wallets- which were great, but not exactly organized.

The issue was that the gels were all kinda mixed together, and to find say- a 1/4 cut CTO on the fly, wasn’t always as quick as we’d like.  We had a couple of really nice Think Tank card wallets sitting around, and while Will Foster was working on a packout, he came up with the idea of ripping the middle seams out to fit gels. Will’s a local shooter who’s not only a good guy, he’s one of those folks who stare at a problem for a couple minutes and come up with a simple solution.


So out came the Exacto blades, and a little while later, we had a much more well-organized gel system.



May seem like a small thing- and it is- but with as much gear, and as little time as we often have to pull off a shoot, this is definitely a time saver in the field.


Dunno what Thinktank is going to think about us, uh, customizing one of their smaller pieces of gear, but they do make great stuff. We have traveled internationally a lot this past year, and have shifted to their wheelie bags for carry on gear. Much easier at the big international airports, where the gates always seem to be about four or five miles from the baggage belt. More on those tk……

Heading West….

Jul 21

In Tips & Tricks at 9:09am

Got a grab bag of stuff I’ve been meaning to catch up to here…..

First, there was the Justin Clamp. Now comes The Sylinator. Sounds better, I think, than a Shure Line paint pole with a metal screw on thingy–Though David Hobby, at his Strobist workshop at Paso Robles did come up with “Metalhead.” Cool.


The pole comes in long and medium reach sizes…..And below, the metalhead…..



So, the naming of the Justin Clamp. I shot the first all digital story for the National Geographic. I didn’t really know diddly about digital process back then (and don’t know much more now, I confess) but it was okay. Not that many people knew a whole bunch about it, anyway. It was the time of the D1X, the first digital camera I thought approached the quality of Kodachrome. No matter to me what was happening inside the camera. It was a camera, and I was shooting a story, same thing I’ve done for quite a while now.


I was hanging SB-80 flashes all over aircraft with these cheesy, flimsy, third party piece of shit hot shoe clamping doobers, and getting frustrated as hell, cause the little ball heads really couldn’t hold more than a thimble full of weight, and they were always slipping and the flashes would spill light in unwanted directions.

I called my bud Justin Stailey, then of the Bogen Corporation, and complained. Photographers. We’re good at complaining. I said there had to be a better way, and Justin being Justin, found one. He brought some off the shelf Manfrotto parts over to my studio and cobbled this little Frankenstein of a clamp together. I said perfect, that’s what I want, give me 10 of them. (Shoulda asked for a percentage. Bogen’s sold a ton of these things.)


I wrote about in American Photo, and called it the Justin Clamp. Got Justin in hot water, though, cause his professors at RIT were pretty upset that a relatively recent graduate all of a sudden had a frikkin’ piece of equipment named after his own self. Justin is now with Leica cameras, and exploring the wonders of German optics.

So let’s see if we can turn the trick with this goober. I’ve really gotten fond of the combo of the Sylinator and an EzyBox Hot Shoe softbox, one of the new ones with an improved bracket (fits the SB900). Gary Astill, the resident genius behind all the springy, twisty, bendy Lastolite things that leap out of blue bags and run around making nice light for you has further improvements in the EzyBox tucked up his sleeve. Stay tuned.


I must be fond of the Sylinator, cause you can get a deal on it in tandem with The Hot Shoe Diaries on Amazon.


The “Syl” part of course comes from the originator of this gizmo combo, the irrepressible Mr. Arena, of the PixSylated blogspot. He just wrote one of those shock wave blogs, this one consisting of rants and wishes about the Canon wireless hot shoe flash system.


Hoo, boy….at Canon HQ they’ve gone to the mattresses after the world wide ripple of applause and approval about Syl’s very constructive dissection of Canon flashes turned tsunami-like. He’s become an expert at deciphering the wireless series of hoots, clicks and grunts Canon flashes emit in an attempt to display a primitive form of dominance in the exposure scenario. Took him a while to write this, I’m sure. I’ve had these visions of Syl in some isolated mountain outpost, having re-built the Unabomber’s shack, and sitting there with a battered Royal typewriter, a gas lamp, and a bottle of George Dickel, knocking out this manifesto.


My bud Bob Krist is blogging, and it’s a worthwhile read. Worthwhile? He’s got 30 plus years of experience covering the travel waterfront, shoots beautiful stuff, is very generous with his large store of knowledge, and is a helluva nice guy to boot. Even if he does allege he won that knock down drag ‘em out fight we had when we were doing the JoeBob Tells Ya About the SB900 video for Nikon. I kicked his ass. I mean, that guy’s old. Uh, wait a minute, we’re the same age. Hmmm…


Anyway, he is the author of many books, font of shooting wisdom and the force behind the LKE, the Lighting Kit for the Elderly. Check it out….


Lessee…long time friend and quintessential photojournalist David Burnett has pointed me in the direction of numerous wonderful photos lately. David has remarkable intelligence and integrity behind the lens, and his work has always been a thought provoking benchmark. He recently had a post on the NYT lens blog about his coverage of the Apollo 11 launch. He also recently did a book on Bob Marley, called Soul Rebel. David’s ability to connect the storytelling dots in the middle of the fracas out there, and bring back something coherent to the readership of mags like Time and Life has always been something to aspire to, and emulate.


Scott Kelby and Mark “The William Holden of Flash Lighting” Astmann have a twofer video up on Scott’s blog. All about the Quadra. We’ve all been looking for something in between big flash and small flash, and the Quadra slides right into that territory. I’ll work with it more this week, and get back with more field stuff.


On the plane. Listening to Jakob Dylan. Something Good This Way Comes…..Good philosophy when you’re out there behind the lens. Patience. A good picture will come, and that one frame will make all the crappy ones we all shoot on a continuous basis just….go away.


Bound for Santa Fe, home of the Monroe Gallery of Photography, run by the wonderful, decent, and incredibly knowledgeable Sid and Michelle Monroe. The gallery is a breathtaking repository of historically important photojournalism that has transcended categorization and is regarded as art. Art that means something. Art that you can chew on. Whenever I am in Santa Fe, that mecca of all manner of art, and I can’t stand to hear another wind chime, or see another painted cow skull, or see another show of poorly shot photographs printed with the collodion print process (which makes them marred, chipped, aged looking and thus somehow “significant”) I go to Monroe and I wander the room.

And I find I’m looking at my memory, right there on the walls. More tk….

Small Flash in Paradise

Apr 22

In Seminars & Workshops, Tips & Tricks at 9:38am

Plus Scott Kelby. I explain below, or go here.

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. Especially funny, at least occasionally, if you’re a photog. Jay Maisel has famously said that being a photographer is “a license to steal experience.” Some good, some bad. Some as quick as a fast shutter speed, others stick with you.

One really, really good one stuck when Travel Holiday magazine sent me in 1994 to St. Lucia, to the Anse Chastanet resort hotel, one of the truly beautiful destination hotels in the world, to shoot a cover story. I remember Bill Black, the photo editor there, calling me. I was stunned. Usually, I get sent to Siberia in February (twice so far) or Alabama in August (blessedly, just once to date). But St. Lucia? This hotel? Spend ten days? Shoot pretty pix? In panorama? Me? There’s a magazine out there that wants to assign this type of idyllic adventure to me?

Of course, this magazine is out of business. But, may it rest in peace, cause the reverb for me has been long lasting. This assignment introduced me to great people who work in a wonderful place.

Anse Chastanet is one of the most amazing marriages of sea, sky and greenery to be found on earth. It is nestled literally into a tropical forest. The rooms have no windows, no phones and no TVs. No need. The view is the entertainment, and the music is the birds, many of whom wish to sit with you at breakfast.

I became friends with the owners, Nick and Karolin Troubetzkoy, who have stepped aside from the general run of tourist frenzy and made a place as beautiful and tranquil as the water. Risk takers, just in the last few years, they crowned the jungle retreat of Anse Chastanet with another, even more audacious piece of exotic architecture called Jade Mountain, which is nothing short of unbelievable.

The shimmer and colors in the picture above rise up from the infinity pools in each room, or haven, as they are called.

I also met Michael and Karyn Allard,  a remarkable couple who have lived and worked in St. Lucia for many years. The redoubtable and indestructible Michael is affiliated with Cannondale bicycles, and has resolutely carved out dozens of trails in the jungle hillsides, working with 1996 biking Olympian, Tinker Juarez, master of the 24 hour endurance race. At the top of one of the most difficult trails, there is a bell, and, if you can make it, you get to ring Tinker’s bell. (I have never made it. I guess cause I never tried. Probably too busy at the beach bar, ringing my own bell:-) Karyn is an organizational force of nature who, along with the Troubetzkoys, marshalled the efforts to artistically graft the Jade Mountain edifice into a steep jungle hillside. We met when they were running the dive shop at AC, and Michael was the person I trusted to scuba certify my oldest daughter. A stone’s throw from the beach, the diving is great, especially night diving.

I have been blessed to do a bit of the hotel’s photography over the years, and the ever gracious Karolin has always welcomed me to this piece of paradise. She is remarkable host, juggling the myriad details of resort running every day. As you can imagine, in a place where everybody has a tendency to slow down, her average day is a mad sprint. We talked last year about a lighting workshop. I could imagine no better place.

Hit the link here, or above, and read more about this unbelievable oasis. We are going in July, and the workshop days run the 6th through the 10th, intro party and greet on the evening of the 5th.

Classes will run from Monday July 6 thru Friday July 10
Arrive July 5 and depart July 11 or 12
The week will be an informative, intensive look at the possibilities of small flash, and the nature of what is beautiful light and how to use it to make your pictures more eloquent, expressive and beautiful. Each day will involve shooting all around the lush grounds of the resort, working with models, heading into jungle locations for action flash photography of mountain biking. During the “bad light” of the day, classroom sessions will take place discussing the theory and the practical use of flash photography. Each day of shooting will be followed the next day with a critique of the efforts in the field. The critique sessions will spur further investigation of the practical, fluid use of flash photography and how to improve your skills.
……..For five days, workshop participants will work with Joe and his assistants to ramp up their skills using flash, and deal with: Available light, and how to recognize good light; mixing flash with available light in a seamless and beautiful way; use of reflectors and diffusers; how to control and fire remote flashes for sophisticated, professional results; use of color and gels; the essentials of exposure; and how to craft a wonderful quality of portrait light which is essential to make storytelling photos of our subject.


Hotel reservation inquiries can be sent to: ansechastanet@candw.lc

and to see more info. on the resorts, check out the following links:


Lynn at our studios has more details…lynn@joemcnally.com. I’m busy working on figuring out how to use one of those little umbrellas that come in the drinks as a fill light…..more tk….