Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Human Focusing Rail

Lady in Yellow
While I mainly shoot using DSLRs, I occasionally want to travel light and then I carry around a Lumix DMC LZ-10, a perfectly serviceable point and shoot. Unlike many point and shoots, the Lumix allows you to specify the point of focus or let the camera choose one or more such points. Mostly, it does a decent job but, when it comes to close-up work, the lens hunts a lot. The fact that I cannot turn off autofocus and simply manually adjust the focus myself annoys the heck out of me.

Until recently, my solution was to keep refocusing over and over until I persuaded the camera to make the right decision. Sometimes, it would never get it right, and I'd give up. Then I had an idea. It is so obvious, it's amazing I didn't think of it or read about it earlier: All point and shoot cameras have a secret manual focus mode. It's called the human focus rail. With close-up shot, I found that, once the camera made a bad decision, I could maintain the focus lock and sway my body nearer and farther from the subject of the shot until I got the thing in focus. I would then fire away with the camera using burst to try to get a few in focus before body sway threw me out of focus. This strategy probably works even better if you have a tripod.

The shot above was taken using the human focus rail technique. The same strategy will work for farther away shots so long as the camera did not pick the focus point too stupidly.

Key lesson: We've become so dependent on technology to assist us in shooting pictures that it's easy to forget simple techniques that were part of every photographer's toolkit back in the everything manual days.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On Assignment

Something happens when you acquire Canon's 70-200mm L lens and carry it around to public events---you are instantly perceived as being a member of the press. People just assume that you must have some sort of official purpose to carry such a lens and, if you're assertive, you can come and go as you please in ways that ordinary civilians cannot.

On Memorial Day, I went early to a ceremony armed with my big lens displayed conspicuously around my neck. The conference organizers asked who I was shooting for and I answered (truthfully) that I'm a freelancer. This was good enough for them. I got introduced to the president of the guys organizing the ceremony and the PR guy. They were all delighted to have me around. While I was shooting the event, I noticed a woman behind me scribbling furiously in a notebook and occasionally taking snaps with an ancient point and shoot. At the end, I asked who she was writing for. It turned out to be a local weekly. She asked if she could use my images which was, of course, fine with me. So in the end, I went from being a pretend member of the press to a real one.

While I shot a bunch of straight documentary type images. I also took some artsy shots as well. Here are a couple of those:

From Danville Memorial Day 2011

From Danville Memorial Day 2011

From Danville Memorial Day 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Mysteries of Flash

I rarely use flash, and it's a weakness in my shooting style. I think my dislike of flash comes from horrendous experiences of shooting indoors with the onboard flash of a point and shoot camera. Inevitably, these shots turn out poorly and, as a consequence, I've internalized the idea that flash shots are, necessarily, bad shots. So I decided to work on improving.

One of the standard recommendations from the web are to create or buy various flash diffusers so as to make the light softer and less concentrated. I decided to test these out with various flash angles and so on. The three "treatments" are: no diffuser, film canister, and sto-fen flash diffuser. The film canister is a translucent film canister with a slit cut in it so that it fits over the onboard flash to form a DIY diffuser. The sto-fen is a standard store bought diffuser. While it is meant for a slave flash, it can be draped (inelegantly) over the onboard flash as well.

All shots are with a Rebel XT on a tripod with a Canon 50mm f/1.4 in P mode with manual focus. White balance is set to auto and the color parameters are at the default settings.

The subjects for the portrait are some of my son's stuffed animals. They're sitting about 6' away from the camera in a poorly lit bedroom. The flash is pretty much the only light source.

We start with the baseline--onboard flash with no diffuser.
From flash test 4

It's not a terrible shot, but it isn't good either. It's too contrasty and the colors are more garish than in reality.

Now we add the DIY film canister.

It doesn't make as much difference I was hoping. The light is a little more evenly spread. The contrast is less severe. Basically, the histogram is shifted to the left with less spiking at the top. The catchlights in the dinosaur's eye are a bit crisper. It's an improvement, but only a modest one.

Now we try the sto-fen diffuser. It is not meant for this purpose which means I'm shooting through the side of the device instead of out of the top as the thing was designed.

Of the three onboard flash shots, I like this image the best. It's again less contrasty than without the diffuser. The light is more even on the subjects. It hasn't shifted down the light as much as the film cannister. Overall, it's a slight improvement.

Now we return to the film canister, but add some paper in front of it pointing upward to try to imitate a bounce flash.

This helps. It's about the best of the choices.

Now we add the slave flash, which, in this case is a Canon Speedlite 430EX. It is aimed directly at our subjects.

This is about as awful as the onboard flash. While it's not as contrasty, the colors are garish and there's definitely a "deer in the headlights" quality to the light.

Now we add the Sto-Fen diffuser. (Note that the film canister DIY rig is too small for the Speedlite.

It does what it is supposed to do--cut the light and make it softer and more diffuse. It's a better image though it's still pretty bad.

Now we change aim angles. In this case, a 3/4 angle with the Speedlite to bounce some of the light off the ceiling (without and with diffuser, respectively)

This is a ton better than anything we saw previously. The light actually looks reasonably nice on the stuffed animals. With the diffuser, we end up with a classic bell curve histogram. Absent the diffuser, there is more light overall and especially in the background of the image, which isn't all that helpful. Either way, this is a vast improvement. (Of course, there's a problem if there's no ceiling off of which to bounce light. I'll have to try experiments in other rooms with vary high ceilings, but that's for another day.)

Since 3/4 high was so successful, why not go whole hog and rely completely on bounced light. Here, the Speedlite is aimed directly upward.

Apparently, this was too much of a good thing. Without the diffuser, the light is like that of the sun at high noon. There are lots of unflattering shadows under the eyes of the stuffies. The diffuser makes things a lot better. In fact, it's hard for me to choose between this shot and the 3/4 shot with the diffuser.

So what did I learn?

1. The diffuser makes a huge difference, especially when bouncing the flash. It makes a small improvement in the onboard flash, but it's still a lousy image.
2. Bouncing is key for halfway decent light. 3/4 is clearly the best without the diffuser. With it, either 3/4 or ceiling work. In situations where there are no ceilings or high ceilings off which to bounce, my guess is that 3/4 is the safe bet since you're still getting some of the light directly.

These experiments haven't revised my overall view of flash. I will still avoid it when possible, but at least I have a better idea how to shoot in flash situations to get somewhat decent photos.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lensbaby and Creativity

The Path

A couple of weeks ago I was in a creative funk. I photograph nearly every day, mostly by walking around the neighborhood or the UC Berkeley campus and shooting what I see. While the changing of the seasons and even variation in weather every day provides some novelty, it seemed like I was taking the same shots over and over again. There are only so many angles one can shoot a daisy before the whole exercise becomes rather routine. I used to look forward to the next great shot each day when I went out, but now it felt like I was stuck in a routine. I needed a way out.

As aside: I post my best work on he photo sharing site Flickr. It's a great site and the community aspect to photography has unquestionably allowed me to improve a great deal, but there are some pernicious aspects to Flickr feedback. Clearly, the goal of posting an image is to attract attention, usually measured in the form of comments and faves. But to attract this attention, you are competing with lots of other pictures in thumbnail form. The size effect matters. Low key images filled with subtle details tend not to get much love as the details get lost in the thumbnail. On the other hand, brightly colored images with well-defined subjects get more attention even though they might be boring or even poorly focused at larger scales. The system leads to incentives to create images that translate well in thumbnail size. This, however, stifles the creative possibilities for some types of images.

End of Aside.

About 10 days ago, I acquired a Lensbaby Composer. I didn't really intend to buy a Lensbaby. It wasn't on my list of most coveted lenses. But I ran across a couple of images that were compelling and, in searching for how these images were made, found that they were shot with a Lensbaby. The ad copy for Lensbaby promises nothing short of opening up a new world of creativity. Promising improved creativity is certainly alluring but hard to deliver upon. There are tons of self-help books out there to unlock your creative potential. Most of these are a mix of common sense, platitudes, and some zen phrases full of apparent import yet devoid of any meaning. Rarely will these books make you more creative.

Photography creativity books are the same way. If you're a beginner, they can be helpful. Indeed, I really enjoyed Bryan Peterson's book Learning to See Creatively. Rereading during my creative lull was not helpful. Most of Peterson's advice is pretty obvious to an experienced photographer. For instance, while it is good advice to seek out unusual angles, get closer to fill the frame, and try panning shots, hearing this same advice repeated did little to re-ignite the fire of creativity.

But the Lenbaby is something altogether different. It creates a sort of radial blur around the subject of the image. Now one could do the same sort of thing after the fact with Photoshop, though it is a bit involved to create exactly the Lensbaby effect, but the difference is seeing the possibilities during the shot. By controlling the size of the aperture, you can control the amount of blur. At f/4, you get a small focus point and quite a bit of blur. By f/8, the blur is pretty subtle. I suppose if you stop down enough you get rid of the blur entirely.

Now why is this more creative? Well, it's just a technique so it's not per se more creative. But it did get me to see familiar things in an unfamiliar way. More importantly, by forcing you to commit to the subject of the photo in advance, you must think carefully about composition. Where this makes the biggest difference for me is in landscape shots of various ranges.

For instance, the sample shot at the top of this entry is a path that I've walked down many times. I've shot this path reasonably often and normally that's the subject of the shot--the path itself. Rarely are these shots compelling unless their is some sort of unusual atmospherics, like fog, to add interest. The Lensbaby requires that you offer a more detailed answer as to the subject of the composition. Simply saying "the path" won't do. In the case of the image above, the large oak trees on the right are the subject. And, in this shot, it is the first large oak tree with the extending branches that is the subject. Knowing the subject and thinking about the possibilities for new and unusual subjects really does enhance creativity.