Monday, April 27, 2015

Balancing Uneven Couples

As portrait photographers we're always working with an ideal of beauty on some level or another.  In life, these standards of beauty can be oppressive, damaging, but even the most independent and rebellious person tends to have at least one part of their body that bothers them because it doesn't fit that ideal.  Weight is one of the most common, and while every intelligent person knows it doesn't define beauty, most people would rather not see their weight "issue" immortalized on film.  And this is true whether their weight issue is real or not.  Couples can see beyond to the real beauty of a person, but when two people are pictured together, their difference in size can become even more obvious.

There are a number of techniques to "balance" a couple on film.  Generally speaking, each person should take up about the same amount of space in an image.  Culturally, we can see the man as a little bigger, but surprisingly they don't look any less masculine when equalized or balanced.  And if the man is a lot bigger than the woman, it can be equally distressing for them.

In standard V pose, couples of roughly equal size photograph "well."  It looks like this:
If the man is heavy set, you can have them face the camera and slide the woman in front so she covers part of his body.  This way, their space is about equal.  To keep her from becoming boxy, you have to put her weight on one foot, cock the hip, and work on the curves.

(You could have her face the camera directly and him angled towards her-- and this can work well for a certain feel-- but now he's in the feminine pose and she is in a more masculine pose.)

If she is larger than him, he can face the camera directly and she can slip her arm through his, placing her shoulder behind his.

Remember, the idea is to have them take up nearly equal space in the frame.

Recently, I photographed a couple who's height difference was 1.5 feet.  We played with her on a curb and him below, and sitting in various positions.  Her in his lap but their eyes level.  One thing you never want to do his have him slouch-- that'll ruin a picture.

Friday, April 24, 2015

George, My Dead Body

How do you lug your equipment around?  As a one-man operation who often brings six light stands, two light boxes, two backdrops, a crossbar, boom, two large reflectors, and a tripod along with two camera bodies, four lenses, and three flashes, this question has plagued me.  The real solution would be to stop bringing so much stuff and learn to work my surroundings better.  And I'm moving in that direction.  But sometimes you have to bring a full studio with you.

So I started thinking outside the box.  Photography equipment is expensive, and that goes for good quality luggage as well.  I wanted something big enough to house my 45" cross bar, have wheels for rolling, handles for carrying, sturdy enough to hold 70 pounds of odd shaped equipment, and yet be somewhat compact for storage. The answer came, strangely enough, in the form of a golf bag.  I chose the CaddyDaddy Constrictor 2 Golf Bag Travel Cover. Despite its name, it's not a cover but a full bag.  I can fit my smaller light stand bag (with 4 light stands), plus two additional light stands, my big tripod, two collapsible light boxes, two 6-9 backdrops with cross bar, three umbrellas, a travel bag of equipment doodads is the side pockets, and still have room for a small electric fan. It's huge and heavy, but it has rollers.  I only wish it had a shoulder strap... but then again maybe not.  It's really heavy.  For $80 it does more and costs less than traditional photography luggage.  I call it George, my dead body. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Dolica Ultra Compact Tripod: Benefits and Liabilities

Since I'm not in the habit of reviewing products, when I do it's usually because I've found some I think is exceptional.  That can be hard, though, because equipment are tools, and sometimes one that excels in one aspect of their job can fall short in another.  And yet still be worth considering because of its unique strengths.  That is the case with the Dolica TX570B150SL Ultra Compact Tripod.

What's Exceptional
This unit it compact.  It measures 12.5 inches folded yet extends to 57 inches.  It's also surprisingly elegant and well thought-out.  The leg locking mechanisms are handsome and work well-- they won't sink under the weight of a Nikon D600 with 80-200mm lens, and that's not light. The ball head, too, is sturdy: it held that lens on the vertical.  I also like that it comes with a weight hook so you can attach your sand (or camera) bag to the center column.  This is especially handy, given its weaknesses.

What's Not
The Dolica is a slender unit, and that means that fully extended it will pick up the vibrations and continue to shake long afterwards.  My 80-200mm f/2.8 really isn't any steadier than in my hands.  More reasonable lenses do better-- and weighting the unit from the center hook helps-- but this is not meant for long-exposure night time photography. Frankly, I wouldn't slow the shutter past 1/20th of the second under the best of circumstances.  57 inches has its limitations as well.  With the camera on top, your lens is right about 5 feet high... which might be eye level for your average adult female, but short for a male portrait.

So Why Bother?
It's a limited tool, but that doesn't mean it has no use.  If the conditions aren't too challenging, it's an efficient way to get the camera off your face.  It can go quite low to the ground (much lower than my regular tripod).  At faster shutter speeds it's useful for bracketing exposures; if you're lens isn't huge you can accomplish moderately slow shutter speeds.  It's small enough to throw into a suitcase or leave in the trunk of your car.  And for a $70 tripod, you really can't find much better.  Another added bonus is that you can swap out the ball head for another.  I'm using my Sunpack 620 trigger ball head which not only adds a couple of inches but is easier to use.  I've kept the Dolica ballhead (worth $25 by its lonesome) for my lights and other accessories.  Comes with a decent bag, too.

If you're only going to own one tripod, this isn't it.  Spend a minimum of $120 and get something that will put a crick in your neck carrying it.  When I want the perfect shot, I'm still going to drag my big tripod behind me, but if I'm not sure I'll need a tripod, the Dolica is a smart backup.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Get Punchy

One of my major annoyances is washed out photos.  As a portrait photographer, this is most likely to happen on bright days, the sunlight causing refraction in my lens.  Or worse, when I've over-exposed and there's just not enough data for strong contrast.  On the images below, I kinda had both things going on....  Here's a fast technique for getting the punch back.

Here's the Before and After.  The technique is simple: in Photoshop (or Lightroom) work the image to produce the best exposure and contrast possible without torturing the pixels too much. Then create a Black and White Layer in Photoshop.  Set that layer to "Soft Light" and then adjust the Layer Opacity to taste.  For more control, paint in your mask on the B&W layer as I've done.

The "punch" created by this technique tends to be a little "crunchy"-- it can push skin tones towards porcelain white and etch wrinkles-- so it's really a matter of adjusting to taste.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

3 Products Under $10 that Will Improve Your Photography More than that New Lens

It's very tempting to succumb to the belief that a new, better lens or camera will significantly improve our photography.  We know in our hearts that it won't, but we trick ourselves into believing it's true.  But there are some items that will actually improve our photography skills (and not just the contrast in our images).  And they're all under $10.

Painter's Tape
In the closet drawer it's probably not helping much, but there is a way to put it to good use:  Cut a 2-inch portion of tape and fold over one edge so that it can be easily removed (if you're worried about residue on your camera, stick it to your kitchen counter and then peel it off to reduce the stickiness).  Now put it over the top LCD screen on your camera.  This prevents you from reviewing your settings on the top monitor.

Go into your menu settings and turn off instant preview of your images.  Now, you can't quickly crimp your images to check exposure or focus.

Without info from the top LCD or the ability to quickly crimp, you can focus on seeing everything you need to see through the viewfinder.  All the info is there-- ISO, shutter, aperture, exposure, compensation.  Learn to adjust your settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder; and learn to evaluate the exposure of your scene for yourself as well.  Your camera's meter can be tricked-- so ask yourself, "is the scene predominantly light or dark?"  "Which way do I need to compensate?"  When you evaluate the exposure this way, you're seeing the edges of your frame (and not just your subject). There's no "run-and-gun" method; each picture is a thought-exercise.  It will slow you down at first, but when you remove the tape and turn on Instant Review again, you'll find you shoot both quicker and smarter.  Quicker, because you no longer have to take the camera away from your eye to adjust the settings; smarter because there's less trial and error.  My advice is not to leave the tape on for more than a few days-- it will, eventually, start to harden onto the camera.  But I've found that even a couple of days with the tape improved my evaluation skills and attention to technique.

Camera Remote
I've preached about this before.  It's challenging to practice portraiture because you need a willing subject.  With a remote, you can be both photographer and subject, exploring new lighting and new poses.  I think this is helpful in two ways: First, top photographers like Gregory Heisler always rehearse their lighting ideas before a shoot.  He's known to use a giant piece of paper on the ground so he can mark his lighting positions and take them with him.  That type of preparation separates his photography from the crowd.  Second, doing the poses yourself can help you communicate them to your clients.  Seeing what they look like in the picture tells you about camera angle.


We think of learning as taking in information.  It's not.  It's our ability to process and remember.  Remembering is about recall.  You know that the head of a president  is engraved on a penny (maybe you even remember which one)-- and you've seen it a hundred thousand times.  But you probably can't answer with any confidence which direction his head is facing.  If you want to learn something, anything, practice recalling the information.  My notebook has become a way to process and aid recall.

My focus is at Hurricane Images is "people" photography, and that translates into excellence in three areas:  lighting, posing, and image editing.  I divided my notebook into those categories.

Bonus Product

Websites like this one.  The internet is chock full of free information.  It's almost embarrassing how little knowledge you need to pay for nowadays.  Everybody is giving at least a little bit away for free, with the hope that you'll purchase more, but every little bit is different.  You can cobble together a full set of skills from what's available online.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pleasant Surprise with the Ice Light Alternative

I have no doubt the folks over at Wescott won't be pleased with me, but then I'm sure they saw this coming.  With any popular new "invention" in photography, it's inevitable that a Chinese knock-off version will appear (let's face it, most of the original versions are made in China anyhow).  Over the past few years, Chinese manufacturers have seen the benefits of making these knock-offs with quality in mind, and become savvy at avoiding copyright issues.  So how does the "Magic Tube Light"-- or MTL 900 II-- compare to its $450 progenitor?  First off, I bought mine for $115 shipped.

I'll start by admitting I've never handled Wescott's Ice Light, so a direct comparison is unfair.  But light has it's own baseline for comparison, and that is something we can examine.

Superficially, the Ice Light is considerably more handsome.  The MTL 900 II (marketed under various names) looks a little plastic-y, and it is.  But it has surprising heft in the hand and feels well-built. The 1/4 inch screw mount on the bottom is the one component that gave me pause.  I'd rate it a 7 out of 10 in terms of sturdiness.   I expect, though, with care it will hold up just fine.

The MTL 900 is approximately the same size as the Ice Light (IL).  It has 298 LEDs compared to the IL's 72.  Obviously, the LEDs are individually weaker, but together they produce 1600 lumens of daylight balanced light.  The original Ice produces 1200 lumens, and the updated version II produces 1600.  Both units are dimmable, with a 73 degree angle of light.  The angle and quality of light the MTL 900 produces is similar to a gridded 24" softbox: you have to keep it close to your subject, so the light is soft with a bit of directionality or bite.  Both brands will last about an hour at full brightness.

While the Wescott is clearly superior in terms of looks and finish, our Chinese friend has a couple of advantages over the Westcott.  The most important is the battery-- it uses a common rechargeable Sony battery that costs about $10 on ebay. You can buy a couple and have hours of working light.  The MTL also comes with a remote, which while handy you'll probably never use.

If all this sounds exciting, there's a very important caveat and it applies to both the $450 Ice Light and it's $120 Black Sheep: the amount of light and what that translates into in real life.  1600 lumens isn't a lot.  In real-world terms, with the MTL 3.5 feet from the subject, my camera settings are shutter 125, aperture f/5.6, and ISO is 500.  Obviously, you can open up your lens farther, but for single portraits the depth of field is already pretty shallow and for couples anything less than 5.6 is a hazard. It's also a continuous light, which means that balances room ambient and key light is difficult given how little power you have to work with.  Both the Ice Light and the MTL are best suited for indoor/studio and night time portraiture, and perhaps a little punch or fill outdoors during the day.

Limitations aside, I was pretty impressed with the MTL900 II-- enough that I immediately purchased a second unit and a pair of barn doors ($30 for the knock-off version versus $40 for the Wescott).  Indoors, the light is small, quick to set up, and can produce some lovely light.  The barn doors add great functionality, and the quality of light is interesting.

A couple of little quirks:  you can run the MTL on AC, but if the battery is low it won't go to full brightness until it recharges to some unspecified level.  The amber, 3200k filter is a nice additional, but it would have been so much smarter to have the piece half clear, half amber so that you simple rotate the filter rather than remove.

What's it look like in action?  Here's a portrait done with two MTLs (positioned above and below as you can see in the catch lights).  The lights are on stands with ballheads positioned for the horizontal.  It's a two minute set up and knowing the amount of light it produces (and thus my camera settings) the first shot was a keeper.