Thursday, March 20, 2014

Day 60, Learning 60: GN Mode on Flash

The mysterious and forgotten GN mode... does anybody remember what it's for?  GN  stands for Guide Number, and it's a way to manually set the power of your flash without guessing at the strength.  The Nikon SB700 and above-- and many other flashes, offer this mode.  When attached to your camera, the flash already knows the ISO and aperture settings.  You fill in the approximate distance to the subject and the flash adjusts the strength for the proper exposure.  Why not use TTL mode?  Honestly, that's a fair question nowadays, but GN does have one advantage.  It meters the light in a way similar to a hand-held light meter, which means it's never fooled by color or overall exposure of a scene.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Day 59, Learning 59: Posing Couples

Working with couples offer their own challenges and rewards.  They amuse themselves while you fiddle with your camera settings, which is nice; they also bring their own intimacy and mood to the shoot.  But they can be challenging, especially if one person is uncomfortable in front of the lens.  Here are a few ideas for working with couples:

  • The more points of touch, the greater the intimacy.  Work with hands, foreheads, hips, cheeks, and noses.
  • Lead them through a sequence of moves in one position: 
    • Start facing each other; put your forehead together; rub noses; now, roll your head out to face the camera; give her a tickle; caress his cheek.
  • When walking, go slow.  Make sure the hands/arms aren't awkward or swinging widely.  If they are, hook their thumb in their pocket
  • When facing forward, make sure their weight is on one leg versus equally balanced (it's more natural and relaxed); bend arms and legs to create angles
  • When sitting, start by placing one person, then the other.  Don't have them "sit on the bench together."
  • Don't be afraid of giving specific direction, even as detailed as "look at his hand."
Just like in an individual session, make sure they're having fun, give them lots of verbal feedback and encourage, and occasionally show them the image on the back of your camera.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Day 58, Learning 58: Frequency Separation

There are plenty of tutorials on this Photoshop technique and I highly recommend checking them out on Youtube.  Since I just wrapped up the editing on a photoshoot where this was the primary tool I used to work on the images, I wanted to spend this post appreciating and promoting this non-destructive technique.  It really has two functions:  to adjust color and to edit surface aberrations.  The "separation" that occurs is between these two elements of the image.  Where it became useful, was in lightening the dark circles under the eyes (which everyone has to some degree by virtue of lighting from above), and the skin texture which we want to largely preserve.

Here are the steps:

1.  The issue I'd like to address here is the slightly darker coloration under the eye.  The coloration is slight, but this is a beauty-related image.

2.  Duplicate the original layer twice and name the middle layer "color" and the top layer "texture."

3.  Select the middle layer and apply a Gaussian filter (Filter - Blur - Gaussian).  Set the radius between 10 and 15.  You want to it to be blurry enough to remove texture, but still retain color separation.

4.  Click on the upper Texture layer.  Go to Image - Apply Image to bring up the dialogue box below:

You want to make sure the Layer is set to "Color."  The next part depends on whether your image is in 8 bit or 16 bit. You can check which bit mode you are in by going to Image - Mode. If in 8 bit (the example above) you must sent Blending to "Subtract," Scale to "2" and Offset to "128."  If the image is in 16 bit, Blending is "Add," Scale= "2," and "Offset = "0." These are not interchangeable.

5.  The image is now all grey.  Set the Blend mode for the top layer to "Linear Light."  The image should look exactly like it did before we started.

6.  Select your Clone Stamp tool, click on the middle Color layer.  Sample from the area you prefer and paint on the area you want to change.  I prefer to use a low flow of about 5%, and gradually paint up the area.  For reasons I can't explain, I've found that YOU MUST HAVE THE TOP LAYER VISIBLE WHILE WORKING ON THE MIDDLE LAYER.

 This becomes this:
The difference here is slight, but it can be dramatic depending upon your original.  Now you have corrected the color differences but kept the texture of the skin.

7. Click on the top Texture Layer.  Using your Clone Stamp tool again, sample the area you want to clone and paint over the "problem" area.  I typically set my Flow to around 20% for this process.  A word of caution, though:  wrinkles and texture around the eye are natural and make it appear real, not plastic.  I often leave the wrinkles as they are, or use the Bonus step below.  Here is the image with the wrinkles "softened" but not turned into the skin texture of the cheek.

Bonus Step:  The bonus step is something you would do before all of the others. I like to preserve the wrinkles around the eye, but sometimes they are just too dark.  Instead of using the clone tool in step 7, I'll start by carefully Dodging the lines.  I find it works best to do this at the beginning; the subsequent steps (and if you choose to lightly clone under the eye) will blend the dodge-work better.

Now Youtube the technique.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Day 57, Learning 57: We Are Our Own Subjects

In posing models the standard recommendation-- and one I fully support-- is that you show them how you want the pose.  If we want them to tilt their head at an angle, we'll show them by tilting our own head, or using our hand as an example.  I have on occasion, stood beside the model and mimicked the pose I want-- remember, you should never (i.e. rarely) touch your models. 

As much as we are physically mirroring our models on set, we are also emotionally mirroring them.  We can't simply command "be happy" or "smile."  We need to mirror that lightness, that playfulness, in our approach with them.  In that respect, we are the model.  The photographer isn't invisible behind the camera.  That's a fallacy.  The photographer is mirrored in the subject and entirely visible in the image.

In working with models over time you develop a verbal patter that allows you to encourage and support your models.  For a model it can be incredibly awkward in front of the lens with no feedback.  As photographers we can become totally absorbed in the technical aspects of the work, especially if they are not going as we had planned.  The best approach is real and honest dialogue and interest.  There are times, I'll confess, when I'm too distracted for that and rely on stock phrases:  "that's good, that's great, nice, excellent, I like that, you look great, wow...."  The best advice I can offer is to occasionally put the camera down and just talk.

Personally, I don't like working with a tethered monitor.  Everyone starts looking at it and adjusting themselves accordingly-- and they stop paying attention to your direction.  I do, however, show the image on the back of the camera. It's hugely encouraging and builds trust in your work.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Day 56, Learning 56: Product Lighting

Mostly, I'm a people photographer.  Photojournalism or so-called "formal" portraits are my passion-- I say so-called because its wrong to call a fashion shoot formal.  Staged might be closer.  But if you want to excel in your niche, you have to be skilled in every other type of photography that surrounds it-- and that's pretty much them all.  One day that model is going to be holding a bottle of Jim Beam, and for the advertiser they're equally important parts of the frame. So here's a few tips for product photography:

  • Soft, round (big) lights-- like you get from box lighting-- is okay for or product packages; but
  • Soft, round (big) lights are too bland for advertising.  Go with small lights.
  • On shiny surfaces, work with small reflectors/mirrors, as well as black flags/strips/blocks to add shadows
  • The object doesn't move, so use continuous lights and low shutter speeds (with a tripod)
  • On matte surfaces, scrape the light across (use low, side lighting)
  • Light the background for more separation
  • Know the background color they'll be using if the product will be a knock out
  • If it are doing a knock out (replacing the background) the original background should be on a spectrum from white to black-- never colored.  Otherwise you'll get color bleed on the product.
  • Err towards too bright or slight over-exposure

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Day 55, Learning 55: Chance and Unpredictability

Holy Toledo, I missed four days of posting.  I did keep up with learning, mind you, it was just the blogging that suffered.  What caused this failure, you ask?  A most lovely shoot with jazz siren La Mariana (and her husband Mark).  This is the kind of shoot you hope for:  a great, fun couple, eager and playful, exceptionally photogenic.

You can never count on that kind of client, though.  Chance and unpredictability are much bigger elements in a photography session than you might think.  Weather, children, pets, bad moods, bad hair; one of the things I love about photography is that when you agree to a project, you're never absolutely, completely positive you can deliver the goods.  You have to trust your wits and be willing to freefall.  There are a number of ways to hedge your bet, though:

Know your subject.  Pre-visualize the shoot; learn their interests/passions.  I wrote a whole blog on how.
Have five photo options in your head.  If those are poses, have a couple of variations for each
Bring the sun in your pocket.  I'm talking a flash or two.  They're even helpful outdoors to give blah light a little punch; helpful indoors for your subject or your background. If you've got an assistance (or can commandeer one), your can move quickly.

If you've been following this blog at all you know I rarely promote equipment or encourage people to buy more stuff.  So far I've recommended a $7 wireless remote for practicing your craft and a $6 notebook for making sure you actually learn something.  But the RoundFlash is quickly becoming one of my favorite tools for carrying the sun in my pocket.  On camera it does what it's supposed to (which has its plusses and minuses): at close range it creates a soft quick fall-off of light and a ring of reflection in the eyes (which I find kinda ugly and unnatural).  Attached to a monopod off-camera,  and you've got portable softbox that can fold up and go in your pocket.  If you've got an assistant, they can keep it positioned close for great results. There are cheaper knock-off versions of the Roundflash, but I can't vouch for them.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Day 54, Learning 54: Revisit Old Photos to Make New

Whoa Nelly, barely posting this one under the deadline.  No promises for tomorrow.  I'm shooting a lovely and talented jazz singer named Mariana Desoto Hughes in San Jose, which will take most of the day.

Today's learning came by accident.  I was responding to an inquiry about a landscape and architectural job, and discovered that I wasn't pleased with the samples I had to show her (actually, I was too lazy to pull out the old hard drive and hunt around for some of them).  I was looking through the images I had at my fingertips, and started fiddling with a couple of oldies.  Here's the odd thing: when you improve in photography there's the taking of the image-- which can never be altered-- and the development of the image-- with which you can experiment with your new found skills.  Here's the original of the image above:

Correctly exposed but kinda blah, right?  It's taken in southern China.  The day was overcast (as were nearly all the days I was there) making the colors and contrast dull.  In the midst of beautiful landscape, I was struggling to create a memorable image.  I won't kid you; my highly edited one above is nothing like it was that day or in my memory.  This is an entirely fictional depiction, but far more interesting.

So the first learning is "revisit your old photos."  There are diamonds in the rough.  For a more novel/helpful post I'll explain the sun beam:

  1. Duplicate your layer!
  2. Use the Lasso tool and create the shape of the sun beam.
  3. With the area selected, create a Curves Layer. 
  4. Increase the exposure by dragging the center point up and to the right
  5. Return to Layers and add a Gaussian blur to the mask. Set it between 10 and 50
  6. Click on your image layer again
  7. Use the Lasso tool to create a smaller version of the sun beam inside the original sunbeam
  8. Repeat the steps above-- this will create a brighter center to the beam.
  9. I painted over the branches so they wouldn't be effected by the beam....
Other things I did were clone out the faint flags in the middle, increase the contrast by duplicating the layer and setting the Blend mode to Multiply, pumping up the yellow, adding a few new roots (using the clone tool), and dodging and burning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Day 53, Learning 53: Bettering the Snapshot

What's the difference between a photograph and a snapshot?  We could start an endless debate on that one because there are no concrete rules to either that are exclusive.  Many of the great portrait artists disdain smiles-- "smile for the camera," mom always said because she hates to see unhappy children.  After years of having that drilled into our heads we automatically smile as gamely as we can whenever a lens is pointed at us.  Face the camera is another rule we somehow learned.  As a result the world has produced an almost infinite number of images of people chest towards the camera glaring it down.  A whole set of conventions have worked their way into the social norm that characterize the snapshot, making it a cliché.

It's almost inevitable that when someone hands you their camera and asks you to take their picture that they'll stand facing the camera smiling as hard as they can, displaying all of the hallmarks of the "snapshot."  That look is then copied to a hundred different locations in eerily similar poses.  But you're a photographer, right?  You want to create something memorable.  All of the conventions of polite society are screaming at you to just simply press the damn shutter, but you need to make it better.  To make it something they will cherish.  Here's a few tips on how:
  1. Take the darn picture they asked for.  Exactly as they asked for it.  Then:
  2. Take another.
  3. Move.  Most likely they'll keep their feet planted and turn their head to follow you.
  4. Crouch down.  Polite convention dictates that you raise the camera up to your eye, but you know darn well that it should be at the mid point between the top and the bottom of the frame.  If it is a "waist up" shot, the camera should be at upper chest level.  Move it there.
  5. Give them direction:  "Alright everybody look left!  You on the end-- put your hand on your hip."  When they handed you the camera they turned over control of the situation, and you can keep it for a couple of shots.  They're having fun.  Be a photographer.  Change perspectives, create angles, if they wanted an environmental group portrait zoom in for a close-up; or vice versa.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Day 52, Learning 52: Eye vs Camera

The human eye is an amazing thing.  At the center of it focal area it equals a 52MP camera in terms of resolution (this lessens as it moves to peripheral vision); it has an astounding 24 f stops of dynamic range-- compared the 12-13 stops of a high end DSLR or mid-range medium format camera.  It's ISO goes down to 1. It auto white-balances to perfection every time.  It's roughly the equivalent of a 50mm lens.  And, of course, it naturally captures images in 3D.

The dynamic range, in reality, is actually closer to 12-14 stops.  The eye reaches 24 by quickly adjusting.  At any given fraction of a second it only spans the lesser range.

When you're photographing them, it's best practice to keep them in the upper 2/3rds of the frame, focus on the nearer eye, and catch-lights (the tiny reflection of your light source) give them the appearance of "life."  If the eyes appear dull, there's a Photoshop trick for giving them depth and bringing out the color range.  Select just the eyes using with the Quick Select tool or some other; Feather the edge so it's not hard; copy into a new layer; then set the Blend Mode to "Color Dodge."  They'll really pop.  You can adjust the opacity to reduce the effect, and I sometimes apply a mask and hide the catch light because it sometimes turns too white.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Day 51, Learning 51: Nighttime Long Exposure Tips

There are tons of excellent "how to" articles and video on shooting at night.  I won't try to summarize or top them.  But there are a couple tips I don't hear very often, especially when shooting urban night images.  So here's a few more thoughts for your toolbox:

Set Your White Balance to Shade.  It will warm up the colors that are there.  Now before I get flamed for suggesting you shoot in JPG (which I am definitely not suggesting)... set  your image to shade in Lightroom.

F/11 and Above for Light Stars.  Lights tend to turn into stars at about f/11.  It can add a nice dynamic element to the image

Lighten/Recover in Post.  In Lightroom or Camera Raw, use your recovery slider to pull the details out of the shadows and then adjust your Black slider to make sure you've got the full dynamic range.  Get the details.

Darken and Tint with Gradation Tool.  In Lightroom.

Sharpen and then Mask for the Sky.  This one's a no-brainer, but woe to me if I forget to mention.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Day 50, Learning 50: The Long Road


Whew!  I'm at the half-way mark for my 100 Days of Learning project.  For the most part it's been easier than I expected, though I hope the last couple of days aren't foreshadowing for the next 50.  Finding new material was hard.  But I still can't recommend it highly enough.  There's a certain point in everyone's development when you can only learning by consciously pushing oneself; and everyone has learning to do.

What pulled me through the past couple of days was exploring the idea of combining niches.  For example, if portraiture is your thing, than the "environmental portrait" requires you to have a high degree of control over both landscape and interior photography.  So what combination is necessary for you to excel in your niche?

On my 50th day, I'm offering a few thoughts on landscape photography:

  • Standing upright is rarely the right position for landscapes
  • Look for either leading lines or a strong foreground element
  • Play with long exposures for creating movement, even if it's just creamy clouds
  • Bracket your exposures when shooting a high contrast scene
  • Look for natural "frames:" trees, cliffs, rocks
  • Wait for that side light: avoid shooting between 11am to 2pm

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Day 49, Learning 49: Pick your place

One of the tips for combing people and architecture-- a frequent part of street and art photography-- is to pick your place first.  Find the architectural frame that excites you, and wait.  Let the people, elements enter into it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Day 48, Learning 48: Umbrellas and Light

The rule of thumb is that the bigger the light surface, the softer the light.  This means that a 60 inch umbrella will produce a softer light than a 30 inch umbrella.  But it's important to remember distance.  A 30 inch umbrella at 2 feet will produce as soft a light as a 60 inch umbrella at 4 feet.