Friday, December 30, 2011

Blair Bunting: A Rugby Shoot in the Wee Hours

Using the TritonFlash™
I'm a commercial photographer who specializes in shooting portraits and cars, and I've been a huge fan of Photoflex® lighting modifiers for years. The rugged, textured images I am known for are due in large part to the quality of light that I get with the Photoflex® OctoDome® series, primarily the medium and small.

For this shoot, I was eager to try out my first real experience with Photoflex® electronics in the TritonFlash™. I had read the specs and descriptions of what the product could do and I was excited to try it out for myself. My hope was that the TritonFlash™ would finally give me the advantages of studio lights when I was out on location.

I shot the rugby campaign for Arizona State University last year, and the shots called for bright, high key light and gritty, up close head and shoulders portraits, which meant shooting during the day and accentuating the sunlight with just speed lights and reflectors.

This year, I didn't want to just do the same thing. In fact, I decided to do the exact opposite. I wanted a darker look to this campaign. Instead of shooting during the day, I was looking for minimal light so that each shot would be extremely dramatic. I opted to shoot at 4:00 AM before the sun came up.

Keeping It Simple
I came to the shoot armed pretty simply. I brought a small OctoDome®, a medium OctoDome®, two TritonFlash™ strobe heads and batteries, and a few LiteDisc® reflectors in case I needed some fill.

I like my key lights to be just slightly soft, but still give enough hard light to accentuate textures. I find that my favorite key (or main) light comes from the OctoDome with only a baffle and no face. I also mix the removable silver and gold inserts to get a nice color mix that's just warm enough, but still nicely specular.

After a quick setup, I was ready to arrange the athletes for my shots.

The Huddle
The first set up had the girls huddled close together passing the ball amongst one another. One of the girls, Peaches, had really stunning eyes. For this shot, I wanted keep the lighting very simple and use just one light. Any time a model has striking eyes, this is typically what I do. I don't like to muddle up beautiful eyes with too many catch lights.

The one light was looking good, but I thought I was losing too much detail on some of the jerseys. To fix this, I had one of the girls hold a 32 inch silver LiteDisc behind the huddle to kick some light onto their backs.

For this shot, I used my 70mm lens on my Nikon D3X and had it set to:

• Shutter Speed: 1/200
• Aperture: f/14.0
• ISO 800

The Lift
For the next shot, the coach had the girls lift one of the athletes up and act like she was catching the ball. This was a really cool multi-player pose and I was excited to figure out how to light it.

While they practiced the lift and holding the pose, I thought about how I wanted to arrange my lights. I decided to use one plane of light to paint the height of the shot, and another to add some glare. To do this, I kept my key light the same, raising it a few feet in order to assure that the light spread would evenly cover the girls. To get the particular quality of light I wanted, I placed another TritonFlash™ with a small OctoDome® behind the girls and aimed it back at the camera.

Simple High Key Finish
Finally, I opted to use one of my more tried-and-true lighting arrangements. It's a standard high key with no fill, no kicker. Quick and easy. The medium OctoDome® I placed high camera left and the small OctoDome® I placed low and camera right.

For this series, I had my camera set to:

• Shutter Speed: 1/250th of a second
• Aperture: Varied between f/18 and f/22
• ISO 800 

Before walking out for this shoot, I imagined that shooting with the TritonFlash™ system would be like shooting with AlienBees 800s, but I left feeling like I shot with my top of the line ProFoto studio strobes. The speed of the recycle rate is incredible, the tubes are great, and because of their performance, it was very easy for me to treat them like studio strobes that were finally portable instead of treating them like a glorified speed light. This felt like a solid, reliable system. I wasn't settling with the gear, I was selecting it. Outside the studio, it's my goal to get enough TritonFlash™ strobes so I don't have to shoot with anything else.

If you have any questions about this shoot or any of my other photographs, feel free to tweet me at @BlairBunting and tag your tweets with #BBtheTeacher.

Until next time!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Craig Pulsifer: The Barley Station

At first glance, I wasn’t sure if the guy in the tattered Harley jacket would flip me the bird or laugh like St. Nick.  His sunken eyes shone bright with mischief beneath a hedge of jet-black eyebrows, themselves contrasted by a great silver mane of hair and beard that ringed his face.  I was soon to discover the many faces of 63-year old Larry Barker.

Advance Reconnaissance
The gig was a combination product/portrait for the Barley Station Brewpub featuring a pint of their most popular pilsner, outtakes of which I hoped might also fit my portfolio.  The trick was that schedules dictated that it had to be done during Wednesday night rush hour.  To avoid monkeying with lights and exposures in the thick of it all, we pre-staged things as servers prepped the restaurant.  This gave everyone a chance to stake turf and consider workflow so that we didn’t mix drinks with electronics. 

It was a case where the subject dictated location and location dictated equipment.  The old biker would roll in after his shift at the local plywood plant when happy hour at the Barley Station brewpub would be kicking into high gear – so, we had to think small.

Based on stories about Larry, I wanted to create an image that let us to look deep and long into a face that had lived some pretty wild years – and to hear what that face was saying.  After a few experiments in my own studio, I chose clamshell lighting with a diffused overhead light striking a reflector mounted below the subject’s face.  As a one-light system, clamshell can shed a large, forgiving area of even light for a model to move within.  The mainlight sets the exposure and the distance and angle of the reflector can then determine the ratio of fill to main light.

The Tool Bag
Given space constraints, the Photoflex extra small OctoDome nxt was a shoe-in for the main light.  Only 18” (45 cm) across, this octagonal softbox sheds a curtain of light that is much like a beauty dish - directional enough to catch contour and texture but diffuse enough to wrap around facial features, like an eye socket and the bridge of a nose. 

Rather than use power packs and cables of studio lights, I grabbed a boom stand with ballast to mount a Canon 580 EXII flash unit into the OctoDome using a Photoflex Adjustable Shoe Mount system.

The trade off for portable flash is a slower refresh rate between flash bursts, but Larry enjoyed the pace (with a pint of Barley Station pale ale just off camera).  The entire assembly – OctoDome mainlight and reflector – were then mounted on a boomstand with shot bags for ballast and a multi-arm to hold the reflector.

A word about boom stands: until everything is balanced, everything is off-balance.  I like to lift the stand slightly off the ground by the center column to learn which way it wants to fall and adjust the weight or boom length until the entire unit hangs upright.

Hit the Bar
For camera, I went to my favourite portrait combo: a Canon 5D Mark II with 70-200/2.8 IS lens.  (I would later switch to a 24-70/2.8 because of space issues.)  My assistant positioned the extra small OctoDome about 2 feet (60 cm) above and slightly in front of the model’s face and set the flash to manual ¼ output to have room to adjust it later.

A handheld test shot in Aperture Priority at f2.8 gave a ½ second exposure.  A nice combination of subject and background lighting levels where there, but the slow shutter speed would definitely create motion blur.  Upping the shutter speed to 1/200th would freeze motion within the sync range of my camera and strobe, but of course the higher shutter speed would kill all ambient light influence.  My only recourse was to add a remote strobe back behind the bar, triggered by a radio slave. A diffusion globe on that flash unit would help spread light to the ceiling and adjacent walls – especially the shelves of glassware that lined the back wall.  Enter Larry the Biker!

The Shoot

Stepping into the set, we began to work a series of simple, straight-faced expressions but this soon got more animated.  Shooting tethered from camera to computer turned out to be a great decision.  The immediate feedback helped Larry become more involved in the process and that trust and confidence registered in ways that can only be seen to be appreciated.

For final output, I saw this image in black and white from the very beginning, perhaps because the lovable biker brought back fond memories of medium format 120/220 Kodak Tri-X film.  However, having shot the job digitally, I wound up turning to Nik Silver Effects Pro 2 to run a series of trials to pattern the velvety richness I love about that film and produced a pimped up version of their FineArt profile to boost overall image contrast and bring detail a really great beard. 

Philosophizing over a Barley
So much of our craft is about relationship.  We can study portrait masters, like Karsh and Avedon and breakdown their lighting scenarios, but there’s something in the way they related to their subjects that transcends the schematic behind it.  

In the case of our biker, the minimalist approach to classic beauty lighting has offered us a glimpse into the life of a guy who has “been there, done that”.  

So, here’s to winding roads and wind in your face, Larry!  Thanks. 

Written and photographed by Craig Pulsifer

Friday, December 2, 2011

White Balance - Why Should I Care?

White balance refers to the color of the main light source and how it renders the overall color accuracy of the photograph. If you’re unhappy with some of your images because they seem too orange/yellow or cyan/blue, this mini lesson will help you.

The concept of needing to change a camera setting to obtain proper color balance in a photo is difficult for many amateur photographers to understand.  You may ask, “Why bother with the camera controls or colored gels if colors look okay to me when I view the scene in real life?”

Your eyes compensate for various light sources and make everything look normal, but your camera does not. Your camera needs to be adjusted to the color of the light. Unless you make some white balance adjustment to ‘neutralize’ the color, photos taken under various light sources will have strong color shifts.

The following photo illustrates how dramatically different the color of daylight is from the incandescent/tungsten room lamps, yet we would never notice this with our eyes.

Many cameras have ‘automatic white balance,’ (WB) and the newer models may improve the image quality under many conditions, but the best results come from manually adjusting the white balance.

For the purpose of this lesson, let’s think of the various colors of light on a scale from red (warm) to blue (cold). Most cameras have a set of simple choices in the white balance menu, represented by five or six icons: Candle, tungsten light bulb, sunlight, electronic flash, and fluorescent lamps.

Method 1:  By setting the WB on the proper icon in your camera’s menu, the color of your photos will be greatly improved. Below we see a series of photos that compare ‘without and with’ WB corrections. The following shots were taken with a point-and-shoot camera.
Note: If you’re shooting in the JPEG format, as most of us do, it’s always better to shoot with the proper WB setting than to correct the photos later. Why? Because JPEG compression throws away a lot of color information. This is something that all cameras do to reduce the size of the JPEG picture file. As a result of the compression, there may not be enough extra color information to make a correction in postproduction.

If you’re asking whether your camera is shooting in JPEG format, the answer is yes. All digital cameras are delivered in the JPEG setting and unless you’ve changed that format setting, you are in JPEG!

Method 2:

If the general WB icon settings discussed above don’t provide you with the degree of accuracy you desire, there’s another procedure that will solve the problem of color casts:

If your camera offers a WB setting feature, you can manually adjust your WB by photographing a white or gray “target reference subject.” In this case we’re using the Photoflex QuikDisc® product. You can use a calibrated gray or white card, but the collapsible 12” QuikDisc is convenient because it fits into a camera bag.

Camera models with this WB feature vary in their method, but the basic procedure is the same: Enable the WB setting mode in your menu, fill the frame with your QuikDisc and take the shot. This method provides your camera with an accurate white subject and neutralizes all color casts. The camera will remember the setting until you disable it, shoot a new reference, or shut the camera off. Consult your camera manual for the step-by-step method.

Method 3:

This method is the easiest, but it only works if your camera allows you to take photos in the RAW format.

Set your camera in the RAW format mode for your session. For your first shot, take a photo with the QuikDisc in the scene. If you move to a new location, take another shot that displays the QuikDisc before you continue shooting. This method will give you an accurate color reference at the beginning of every series of shots. You can use the images with the QuikDisc reference in them to correct the WB of your photos after you load them onto your computer.

Here’s a split screen example of a test shot taken in RAW mode under tungsten lights with no WB correction. The color is severely shifted to the red end of the spectrum. The right side of the example shows the result after correcting the color. (I describe how to make the color correction later in this lesson.)

Why does this work in RAW and not in JPEG? Images taken in RAW contain a wide spectrum of color information, allowing accurate white balance adjustments to be made in postproduction with any photo software that reads RAW format.

The software CD that came with your camera will have a simple RAW convertor and application for you to make color adjustments to your photos. For more advanced features, Photoshop Elements is a reasonably priced software program that I recommend to my students.

Correcting the color in post production:

If you’re able to open all the photos from each lighting situation at once, using Photoshop, Adobe Bridge, LightRoom or Aperture, you’ll be able to apply one correction to the entire batch.

Click on “Select All” in the upper left of the window so your adjustment will apply to all the shots in the session. Use the White Balance Tool to click on the QuikDisc in the photo. 

After making the white balance correction, press DONE to save your changes. 

For a more detailed step-by-step lesson of how to use QuikDisc to get consistent color balance, follow the link below.

Printing your RAW image.
“What can I do with the RAW file? Photofinishing labs only print from JPEG!”
Yes, that’s true. You will have to make a JPEG copy of your corrected image if you want to print it, or send it by email to others that do not have the RAW conversion software. Although this seems like a series of redundant steps, the improved results will payoff in the end. Most professional photographers shoot in RAW and make postproduction file conversions as a normal part of their workflow. This is just another reminder that computers do not save time.   

Whether you have a point-and-shoot camera or a sophisticated DSLR, your photos will be improved when you understand and use the WHITE BALANCE controls. We hope this information helps.

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Jeffery Jay Luhn and Team Photoflex