Friday, August 29, 2014

Link Friday: August 29, 2014

Another round of Link Friday!  Looking to start selling your "art" photos?  Check out Fine Art America, a service that does just that.  You may have heard of the Brenizer method.  It's an approach to creating wide-angle images with narrow depth of field using photo-stitching.  He wasn't the first to try or document this approach, but he spoke up at just the right time when photo-stitching tools were appearing right and left.  There's more than one way to create a sunbeam in Photoshop, and every now and then you need one to smultz-up that romantic image.  I have.  Here's one approach on Youtube.  Brad Trent is a wonderful commercial photographer who very generously shares in-depth behind the scenes blogs on his work.  I'd bookmark his site, but to start check out his post on shooting Ricky Gervais.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Day 84, Learning 84: Color Rendering Index for Buyers

Producing light is complicated.  I wrote about the alphabet soup of power and speed in my last post, but there's also color.  After you figure out color temperature and how to use it to your advantage, you might find that knowledge is wasted because your CRI, or Color Rendering Index, is low.  Your "daylight" lamp or strobe may be producing 5600K light that looks like 4000K in camera because temperature isn't the only definer of color.

The reason isn't so simple.  Remembering that white light is actually a mixture of colors, it's possible to have the right mix of but each color is being produced unevenly.  Where Green is peaking, Red might be dipping.  Green and Red make Yellow, so there may be shades of yellow that are washed out or off-color.  CRI is measured on a hundred point scale, with 100 being the perfect rendition of color.  Your average fluorescent light may have a CRI between 60 and 70, producing very uneven light.

This is a real simplification of CRI, but to be honest I haven't found more complicated answers to be helpful.  When purchasing a continuous light source, you'll want it to produce daylight, 5600K, and have a CRI of at least 85.  Anything lower and I'd get squeamish.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Day 83, Lighting 83: Lightroom shortcuts at your fingertips

I'm not sure when Adobe instituted this in Lightroom, but they've included a reference cheat sheet for shortcuts as a shortcut.  Press Ctrl + / (Command + / on Macs) and you'll get the above screen with all of the shortcuts for the module you're in.  Click anywhere on the screen and it will disappear, returning you to edit mode.

One of my favorite time-savers isn't on the sheet though-- we'll not precisely. I rate my photos in order to decide which I'll be editing from a session.  Typically, I'll make two passes: the first two weed out the worst; the second to identify the best.  You can rate your images step-wise using the left and right brackets, or by using your number pad.  Hold down the Shift key while numbering, and Lightroom will automatically advance to the next photo.  To make life even simpler, hit the Cap Lock and you don't have to hold down the Shift key.  It's a time saver that adds up over 200 photos.

Other great time savers:
  • K = Adjustment Brush
  • R = Crop
  • M = Gradual Filter
It would have been nice if Adobe had matched the shortcut letters to the words in some way (M for Gradual Filter???), but at least they gave us: I = Info and F = Full Screen Preview.

Day 82, Learning 82: HSS, IGBT and other Lighting Alphabet Soups

There's plenty of acronyms in the photography world.  Generally, you don't need to be well-versed in them... until you're trying to buy a piece of equipment.  Then it's the difference between having the ability you want and being frustrated in the field.

Nowhere in the photography world is this more evident than in the highly technical realm of lighting, so today I'm going to write about a couple of terms that are important when choosing a studio strobe or flash.  First, a definition: by studio strobe I mean something other than a hot shoe flash.  There are numerous varieties and a jaw-dropping range of prices.  That's where deciphering alphabet soup becomes important.

Today:  GN, Watts-Per-Second, HSS, IGBT, and T.1 versus T.5.  Basically, every important consideration when it comes to assessing the light produced (not the fancy bells and whistles).

GN vs Watts-Per-Second
While hot shoe flashes general talk about power in terms of GN, watts-per-second is the lingo of choice among studio strobes.  For folks making the transition, there's not a neat way of comparing flash power to strobe power. GN isn't calculated in a very uniform way among manufacturers, and the reflectors and other modifiers make the same muddle of watts-per-second.  However, general rule of thumb is most hot shoe flashes produce between 50 and 65 watts-per-second.  That means a 100Ws strobe produces about twice as much light-- or 1 stop more light-- than your average strobe.  A small increase.  200Ws produce 2 stops; 400Ws produces 3 stops, or the equivalent of eight SB800s firing at once. 800Ws equals sixteen hot shoe flashes.

Let's put that in field-terms:  with an unmodified 400Ws strobe you can shoot at f/4, 100 ISO, 200 Shutter speed.  More or less.  That'll be some hard light-- add a scrim or softbox and you're shooting at about f/5.6.

HSS & Hypersync
HSS stands for high speed sync.  This is located somewhere above regular speed sync.  Why is it important? Nutty things happen when you start speeding.  Most cameras sync at either 1/200 or 1/250 of a second.  The Pentax 645D, alas, syncs at 125.  It works this way:  flashes are faster than 250th of a second.  Most hot shoe flashes range widely, from 320 to 1/40,000 of a second, depending largely on power: Full power equals slower flash. Lower the strength and you lower the flash duration. This is important because your shutter doesn't open all at once.  In order to move as quickly as it does-- sometimes with shutter speeds of 1/4000th of a second, it opens two parts, forming a moving slot that crosses the sensor from top to bottom.  If the flash duration is shorter than the shutter, then a portion of the sensor does not receive any light from the flash.

There are times when the object you're photographing is moving so quickly that a shorter duration than 1/200th is needed in order to freeze the action.  For this to happen, one of two things must happen: either the flash needs to be evenly distributed over time so the faster shutter can complete its action, or the flash needs to be shorter in duration so that the flash freezes the action.  In the latter case, you keep your shutter at 1/200th of a second and let the flash freeze the action.

For hot shoe flashes, the approach is to "lengthen" the flash duration by produces a series of rapid small flashes.  In doing so, however, the power is also reduced, generally to about 1/4.  If you're in bright light (i.e. outside) forget about it.  Your flash won't make a dent in the ambient sunlight.  If you're shooting indoors, this can be helpful if 1/4 power is what is needed: i.e., your ambient light is reduced by the high shutter speed and your aperture/ISO are sufficient for the flash.

Certain flash triggers provide another option for hot shoe flashes: HyperSync.  This process improves the alignment of the shutter and flash so that the sensor is exposed while during the tail of the exposure, rather than at the start.  This prevents a black band from appearing (due to the complete absence of light), but results in both less power and a gradation of light from top to bottom.

The other approach is favored by high end studio strobes:  shorten the flash duration using IGBT. 

IGBT Technology
A traditional studio strobe has a sharp spike and a long tail as the light dwindles. Half of the total amount of light it produces occurs in the tail. This isn't good for high shutter speeds which cut off before the tail is completed.   To freeze action, you need the light cut off like a switch rather than the shutter.  Enter IGBT technology.  Used with longer shutter speeds in darkened environments, IGBT lights release a burst of the power that stops abruptly.

T.1 versus T.5
These aren't Terminator movies. The flash duration of studio strobes are typically discussed in terms of T.1 and T.5 amounts.  T.5 levels refer to how long it takes for half of the light to be released, and are generally useless.  A strobe with a fast T.5 (the first half of the light produced) can have a very long tail.  T. 1 refers to the time it takes for 90% of the light to be released.  This is the measure you should be following. Different strobes have different T.1 times.  Alien Bees are great reliable lights, but slow. My NiceFoto nFlash 680WS strobe has a T.1 time of 1/1,400th at 1/4 power.  Not the fastest of IGBT strobes (or the most powerful), but that is the equivalent of two SB800s firing at full power.  Strobes with high watts-per-second can be very useful in reducing ambient light outdoors, too.

Bottom Line: What do I look for?
Everything is a balance of cost, ability, and reputation.  In the realm of ability, you want a strobe high watts-per-second (400Ws would be the minimum) and IGBT technology that creates a short T.1 time.  Hot shoe flashes all have IGBT technology, so flash duration isn't a factor; they also all have fairly low watts-per-second-- calculated as GN-- making them useful in enclosed areas but problematic outdoors or when photographing large groups.  After those functional elements, I'd consider bells and whistles-- do you want built in power, trigger, or faster recycle time?  Having a traditional hood mount, such as a Bowen, is helpful with accessories.  Reputation is a harder call. For the risk adverse, stick with the established brands like Einstein, Alien Bee, Profoto, etc.  However, whether they are more reliable than many of the better-known Chinese imports-- Mettle, NiceFoto, Neewer, etc.-- is yet to be seen.  And the fact that it's not clear already says something positive about the import quality. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Link Friday

Over the past couple of years my obsession with photography has resulted in an extensive set of bookmarks, website I check rather neurotically in search of new information on my how to improve my craft (or feed my insatiable desire of new gear-- the stupid person's version of improving their craft).  I've realized that this might be something interesting to share, so for the next few Fridays (at least), I'm instituting Link Friday to highlight my best finds and introduce folks to new photographic resources and talent. 

Thinking about getting an agent to promote your photography?  Check out The Agent List, a pretty great resource.  Just getting started in photography or looking to brush up on the basics?  National Geographic offers a free ebook and who better to give advice?  This link is directly to the pdf-- you don't even have to register.  Beatrix Horvatch-Gallai deconstructs her process for this food image.  It's a good picture, and they are always worth understanding.  And finally, Toronto Star photographer Vince Tallota shares some insight into working with kids.  Solid advice for family and wedding photographers alike.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Day 81, Learning 81: Building Intimacy and Asking Permission

Photography is an intimate, passionate affair.  Whether it’s guiding a bride by the elbow into position, eliciting a sultry smile from a model, brushing aside an errant hair, or arranging a compliant body on a couch, we are engaged in an activity that involves intimacy and trust.  As a photographer, I must connect with my client and maneuver them into a place of vulnerability, revelation, and openness.  As a theatre director this isn’t new territory-- coaxing a powerful performance from an actor is an exercise in trust, intimacy, and passion, and in some cases it requires a therapist’s touch (as an emergency crisis counselor and HIV test counselor for several years, I understand the implications of this statement).

There are blunt tools for understanding and creating this relationship, but in the end it is nothing you can “learn” in a traditional sense.  The building trust is a skill you're either born with or purchase in blood.  Combining the skill of intimacy building with photography is something I am still developing.  It is, I suspect, a life-long endeavor because not only is everyone different, but there are layers of truth and trauma in the human experience.  If you want to excel as a portraitist-- even in the commercial world-- apply yourself to this art and stick to the “bright” side.  The relationship can be abused.

As a photographer, you’re going to do something unthinkable at the end of your intimate relationship.  You’re going to ask to publish it.  Whether it’s in a professional publication (to which you were both paid to contribute) or your website, you’re going to ask to air their laundry in public.  The important part of that statement is the verb, “to ask.”  I always ask for permission, in the contract, to use their images-- and give them the opportunity to veto specific images. 

Now if at this point you’re thinking, “it’s my image, I created it,  I own the copyright, I can use it as I please,” you should understand one thing:  you’re a schmuck.  In all likelihood you have not taken an image “the world must know about.”  You’ve taken, perhaps, something beautiful, perhaps something meaningful.  But it’s made so by the intimacy and trust your subject has given you.  Your talent as a shaper of light and geometry-- even as a builder of intimacy-- is secondary.  If you understand that, then you realize you should ask permission. 

For this reason, I include the image rights in the fee for my non-commercial sessions; I offer to create a book or a framed print for them (and it’s worth it, believe me), but the images themselves are included in my session.  Always.  Many photographers may be horrified by this because their real income is derived from the delivery of images-- not the taking of them. Not me. If the images are meant for their personal use-- spouse, parent, child, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even a wedding-- I view them as the client’s, and I frankly don’t want to be responsible for archiving and licensing.  I also want my sessions to be affordable to a wide range of people, and the pay-for-print model is inevitably pricey.  Yes, there’s a class of client who will pay $200 for an enlarged print or $600 for a book, but you’re a fool if you think everyone can.  It’s a luxury item available only to the 5%.  Paradoxically, photographers who charge exorbitant amounts for their prints are often the first to proclaim that it’s not the print but the “experience” their clients are paying for-- a stance that makes no sense given what they charge for the print versus the session. 

I believe my clients return because the session is unique and the images spectacular.  Pricey prints, then, are simply ransom, and frankly I believe that in the future high fees on the prints and other products will undermine business.  Because Aunt Sally can “take” a picture and their getting sharper and more professional with every new model of camera.  She's provide them for free.  As a professional I can compete on the value of the “taking” an image, because Aunt Sally can't create the same experience as me.   But I can't compete on the value of “providing.” The images Aunt Sallie takes can be made into a book or a 8” x 10” print just the same as mine.   They may even be as special, as intimate.  So here's the short version: because I build intimacy and trust with my clients, I ask their permission to use their images. In doing so, they become the client's pictures, not mine (though I technically never relinquish copyright, only share it).  At Hurricane Images I price the value where it belongs: on the session.  And I make that session into a special event-- even when it's a professional headshot for a LinkedIn profile.

So here’s my advice for non-commercial images:

> Make your session, the “taking” of pictures, as special as possible
> Deliver stunning images
> Make high resolution and web-ready images inclusive with the package

Yes, top photographers can charge a king’s ransom for their images, but they are the 5% of photographers who are dealing with the top 5% percent of earners.  The rest of us have bills to pay, and never forget that is true for your clients.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Underground Runway Summer Issue is Out!

During this past year I've done a couple of shoots with the talented and motivated folks at Underground Runway, an Oakland-based fashion company.  They've published their summer guide and you can check it out online here.  Images from my two shoots with them are sprinkled throughout, a nice honor.

Our session started with rain threatening, an overcast sky and you can see the effects of the light on the above image.  Her skin was light enough that I didn't feel inclined to pull out a reflector, though it might have helped.  Later, the sun emerged and out it came.  The designer said she'd never seen a photographer switch out the reflector surface, which prompted my blog post here.

Fashion photography is one of our specialties at Hurricane Images Inc.  It's such a joy working with clothing designers and make-up artists-- it lifts your work to another level that's hard to reach otherwise. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Day 80, Learning 80: Answering the Tough Question

When I shoot a session I try to take as few pictures as possible.  My primary reason is thus:  in taking fewer, more conscientious photos I improve my skill set.  Each image is thought-out, then problem solved.  The better I get, the fewer “mistakes” I make, and the more likely I’ll be able to produce a great image under pressure with no opportunity for a re-take (such as during a wedding).  Also, I spend less time frowning at the back of my camera (which can make clients uncomfortable) and I have greater ability to show them an image on the back of my camera if I think they need a little encouragement.

I also try to limit the number of images I provide a client as much as (reasonably) possible.  I have two reasons for this:  first, I don’t what to suffocate truly great images under simply “good” ones; and second I want my client to view the images as a piece of art.  You don’t buy paintings by the dozens; why should you buy photos that way? 

This means, however, that I am often asked for the “other” photos I took.  The client, understandably, feels the because they paid for a session they are entitled to all of the photos, edited or not.  There are a number of reasons I don’t want turn over un-edited images.  First, there’s my reputation to consider.  I don’t want to be represented by my worst images unless it’s absolutely required of the assignment.  Second, when the client compares a non-edited image to a similar edited ones, they’ll begin to see beneath my work.  If I’ve removed a skin blemish (and I outline my rules for doing so here), they may begin to feel badly about the fact that they had a skin blemish.  And I don’t ever want my clients feeling badly about a session.

It’s some trial and error to figure out what to say when someone asks for those “other” images.  What I tell them is this:  "Back in the film days, photographers typically only took about 250 images, and maybe 150 of those were worth sharing with the bride and groom.  With digital we can shoot 1000 images for almost no cost (it does tax the shutter mechanism which has a limited lifespan), but in truth most of those 750 additional images are the photographer practicing in the moment.  We’re trying different compositions, different depths of field, different exposures, or trying to find the moment that best captures the emotion. A musician practices in their living room and performs in front of an audience when the work is as near perfect as they can manage.  A photographer can’t practice before the event, so we have to combine practice and performance during the event.  The real performance, however, is when we share our near-perfect images with others."

If I still get push-back, I may talk about my criteria for selecting the best images, the problems of RAW files, or even the problems with un-edited, un-curated images in general: they went with a professional photographer because they wanted to be happy with the images, but everyone looks bad in some photos because humans are capable of making some pretty strange faces.

So when I say I try to provide as few images as possible to my clients, what does that mean?  For a private session I am for approximately 40 finished images.  Events can vary greatly, too much to define. It has been as few as 40 and as many as 300.  Weddings I say 150-200 to my client; I provide 200-225.  The commercial world is completely different.  Often, those clients want just 5-10 strong choices.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Day 79, Learning 79: Maximizing Sharpness and Detail

These days we probably place too much emphasis on sharpness and detail; the masters of old certainly weren’t as obsessed with it as we.  Even while I try to remind myself that sharpness isn’t everything, I find myself justifying my obsession by saying I can always unsharpen an image, but it’s harder to sharpen a blurry one.

True sharpness is a cross-platform endeavor

I’ve known the basics of how to achieve sharp images for years, decades; but as a professional I’ve learned the importance of maximizing sharpness in a very conscious way across “platforms.”  Sharpness isn’t dependent solely upon your equipment, your focus, your camera settings, or your editing skills-- it’s a combination of all four.  So today I’m covering them all.

Equipment / Lens.  Manufacturers tout the sharpness of their lenses, and it’s a vital player in the game.  Without a sharp lens you’ll never get truly sharp, detailed pictures.  In truth, though, most lenses are pretty sharp nowadays-- or at least pretty sharp at a specified focal length and/or aperture.  Inexpensive lenses can often be as sharp as expensive ones.  No matter what you buy, it’s worth researching what others have written about the “sweet spot” for sharpness.  Typically, though, lenses don’t perform at their best near the edges of their capacity.  They tend to be sharpest between f/5.6 and f/16, and if it’s a zoom at neither the widest or the narrowest.  A few test shots will probably tell you what you need to know.

Equipment / Lens Hood.  This five dollar accessory (I use this collapsible version) can make a world of difference, even when you’re not shooting with the sun pointing into the lens.  We see objects in the world because light is reflecting-- and refracting-- off of them.  We are literally walking in a world of refracted light.  Strong, directional light on a clear day causes the light to refract before it reaches your sensor, and blurs your image.

Focus.  There’s not too much to say about this.  Your camera’s auto-focus probably does a pretty stellar job.  Certain lens-camera combinations can require fine-tuning, an option available on high-end DSLRs.  Another factor to consider is the where to focus.  In portraits, the closest eye is the common target and for good reason.  If the eyes are sharp, then the image appears in “focus” even if the rest is blurry.  This dynamic comes into play when saving a slightly blurry image during image editing.

Settings / Aperture.  Only a few lenses are tack sharp wide open.  Strangely, these lenses aren’t necessarily the most expensive ones.  The Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5 is very sharp wide open and costs $150 used.  Typically, however, you need to close your aperture two stops before you get close to maximum sharpness.  For most lenses, sharpness declines around f/18 due to diffraction.  “Diffracted light” is light that is reflected at an angle after striking a surface.  When you narrow the diameter of the aperture, you are essentially forcing the light through a narrow opening and a small portion of that light is bouncing.  A wave length that should fill one pixel of your sensor spills onto another, muddying the sharpness of your image.  Most lenses, therefore, are sharpest between f/5.6 and f/16.

Settings / Shutter.  This is a no-brainer.  A slow shutter speed allows the tremor in your hands-- or the movement of the subject-- to blur the image.  The common rule of thumb is your shutter setting should be equal or greater than the millimeter of your lens: 50mm lens, 50th of a second.  This is (basically) true for a full-sized sensor, but the rule deteriorates quickly.  The higher the MP on your sensor, the higher the shutter speed needs to be (Nikon D800 owners discovered this in a hurry).  The real villain is pixel density-- not the number of pixels overall. The closer those pixels are to each other, the more they are affected by motion blur and diffraction.

Settings / ISO.  High ISO equals noise.  Noise competes with detail.  Yes you can reduce noise in post, but you’re also reducing the natural texture.  So if we want sharper images, shoot as close as possible to your camera’s base ISO (typically 100 or 200) and with proper shutter speed and aperture.

Editing.  There are a number of sharpening tools in a variety of software editing programs and they all adjust essentially the same thing.  What’s surprising is that they can be remarkably different in terms of effectiveness.  It’s important to understand that sharpening tools essentially increases the contrast on perceived “edges” in the image (any place there is a sharp change in color).  Lightroom’s sharpening tool works well with non-portrait images; I find it to be ugly on people.  Photoshop offers a quick sharpen tool (the triangle tool) for when the image is pretty sharp but I want to quickly hit the eyes or hair. 

I typically set the Strength between 15 and 25 to minimize noise.  More sophisticated options are the UnSharp Mask and Smart Sharpen filters.  These adjust the edge contrast and are best used with a Mask so you can paint the sharpness exactly where you want it.  The most powerful tool in my opinion, is the High Pass Filter located under “Other” in the Filter menu.  For portraits I recommend setting the Radius between 2.5 and 3.5 (though you may need to go higher based upon the image), and the Blend Mode for the layer to Overlay.  Then apply a black Mask (holding the Alt key while clicking on the mask icon) and paint in the areas of sharpness.  In my experience, the high pass filter can virtually adjust the plane of focus by as much as two millimeters if I’ve missed my focus. The eyes, as I mentioned earlier, define our sense of focus in a portrait.

Not every image needs to be in sharp focus; that’s a myth sold to us by camera and lens makers.  It’s reinforced by the fact we view images on our computers now.  What used to be a 4x6 inch image now starts at 5x7 with infinite zoom capabilities.  Most people, however, still print at 4x6.  When I pick up my camera, I’m aware that sharpness is an aesthetic variable just like depth of field and I plan accordingly.  Often I default to a “sharper is better” decision because I can always blur in post, but even then the degree to which I pursue sharpness varies.  The picture below was one of my client’s favorites (and mine, too).  I clearly missed my focus mark.  But that error adds an ethereal quality to the image, and an intimacy that wouldn’t exist if the eyelashes had been in focus.  

What’s your favorite “fuzzy” image?