technique

finding interesting available light & white balance options

It’s always a feel-good moment to discover interesting available light while out on a photo shoot. Something unusual to add a new flavor to a different sequence of images.

While photographing a model with Tilo Gockel and Mike Silberreis (both from Germany on a visit to NYC), we started off with off-camera flash to help with the strong sunlight. (You might remember Tilo from a recent guest article on product photography on a budget.)

Then, while positioning Olena, I saw part of her dress had a patch of bright light on it. Turning around to see where this came from – I expected sun flare from nearby building window – I saw that it was actually the sun reflecting off a traffic sign right next to us. The light that was reflecting off this traffic sign was pretty hard, but had an interesting specularity, yet appeared flattering. So we shot an entire long sequence here, ditching the off-camera flash.

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using tele-converters: extra lens compression for tighter portraits

One of the techniques to have your subject really stand out from the background, is to use the longest focal length on your 70-200mm telephoto zoom. One of the first things I do, is to zoom to maximum focal length, and then step backwards to find the composition … and then only zoom wider if necessary.  Doing it this way, forces you to use the longest focal length. This compression focuses attention on your subject by creating separation from the background.

To extend the range of my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, I always keep a 1.4x teleconverter in my bag. This extra 1.4x boost in focal length gives me reach, or as in this case, that extra compression to help with my photograph’s composition:

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Light Blaster: image projection effects for creative backgrounds in the studio

Working with an idea in mind – a moody B&W portrait with a stylized cityscape as background. Using the Light-Blaster again in the studio, this final image was a progression of that idea. I knew I wanted to use the cityscape background of one of the metal gobos that came with the Light-Blaster kit.

Because I wanted the final photo to be black and white, I set my camera to Monochrome so that I’d have a good idea during the shoot what the final image would look like. Since I shoot in RAW, the image would pull up in color the moment I start my post-processing. Then I reverted it to B&W again, and edited it for contrast and for the vignette you see in the final image at the top.

The first step of the shoot was to set up the Light Blaster, then get the exposure, and then figure out the lighting on our model, Priscilla.

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flash freezing the action at slow shutter speeds  (model: Oktavia)

Does flash freeze action when shooting with slow shutter speeds (in low light)?
The answer is … maybe. Perhaps. It depends.

It is difficult giving a definitive answer because it depends on the scenario. In short – if your subject isn’t lit by much available light (with ambient light 4 stops or less than your flash exposure), then flash will freeze the action … if there is no bright background. Probably. But it depends on the type of movement, and how critical you are about image sharpness.

See? We just can’t quite get away from those qualifiers – perhaps / depends / probably. But let’s jump into this and see when flash will freeze the action, and when you’re likely to be succeed.

The photo above, of Oktavia dancing, was shot at  1/10 @ f/2.8 @ 1600 ISO
At 1/10th of a second, the flash did freeze her movement.

You can see the background lights streak as I moved my hand-held camera to try and keep up with her movements. I was trying to hide the flash behind her, but I liked the effect here. You can also see the city lights streak through her arm as she moved.

Let’s quickly look at the pull-back shot to see how the flashes were set up, and then we continue the discussion on whether flash freezes action …

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Using your lens’ bokeh as a design element

In previous articles we could see how a fast 85mm can be used for shallow depth-of-field to shoot nearly anywhere by melting away the background. There’s another aspect to this – the bokeh of the lens. The bokeh is a reference to how the quality of the background blur is rendered by a lens. It can be smooth, or have “jittery” patterns to the edges of objects, and the highlights.

Do note though that bokeh and shallow depth-of-field are not quite the same thing. While the DoF / choice of aperture does affect the appearance of the bokeh of a lens, the shallow depth-of-field look isn’t “bokeh”. Similarly, you can’t do something like “add more bokeh”. Bokeh is the quality of that background blur. It’s mostly an aspect of the lens design.

Now, very often, when a fast prime lens is used wide open, there’s a kind of swirly feel to the background blur – and if you’re aware of this, and find an appropriate background, it can really accentuate the portrait.

The image at the top of Jen & Corby, was shot at f/1.4 and you can see how the background behind them has a distinctive circular swirl to the out of focus high-lights.

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creating foreground bokeh effects in-camera

The closer you move to a foreground object, the more it’s shape and color and opacity will affect the image … in unpredictable ways. It’s a well-established technique then to create unusual color splashes and shapes in the image by creating flare highlights. It is often called “foreground bokeh effect”.

Ulorin Vex is an unusually photogenic model that I have photographed on a few occasions. When Ulorin visited the East Coast again recently, I jumped at the opportunity to meet up with her again and play in the studio. Her striking looks and colorful latex dresses would work perfectly with this technique – the random kaleidoscope patterns and colors wouldn’t be incongruous.

With a standard lighting setup in the studio, using a beauty dish, I also added an extra light to throw light directly towards the camera. I then held up various colored objects right in front of the lens – a colorful translucent plastic flower with colorful petals and leaves worked best. Shooting through an opening between the petals and leaves of the decorative plastic flower, all kinds of interesting random patterns appeared. It was unpredictable, and that is what made the effect interesting in part – you wouldn’t quite know what you’re going to get.

If this effect appeals to you, it would make sense to collect all kinds of objects to try out – glass elements and prisms work well too. Anything that will create a pleasant visual surprise.

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boudoir photography and the 50mm lens

With shooting space often times so tight for boudoir photo sessions, there is the temptation to use a 50mm lens for tighter headshots on a full-frame D-SLR. Instead of stepping back a bit and using an 85mm lens or longer, a bit of visual laziness comes into play, and we rely on the 50mm lens too much. It really is too short a focal length for a tight portrait. I think many photographers are even too in love with their 50mm lenses, and use it without thought of how this would distort someone’s face when used too close to their subjects.

I totally understand the need for compromise. Quite often the angle we need to shoot from, dictates a shorter-than-ideal focal length – whether because of the shape of the room, or the direction of the light. This still doesn’t make the 50mm a good lens to shoot tight portraits with. A longer focal length would still give you more flattering results.

The example photographs in this article are by Petra Herrmann, Kansas City boudoir photographer. Petra also maintains the Business of Boudoir, website which has a lot of useful info for boudoir photographers.

She used a 50mm lens for these images, but kept to half-length as the closest distance to photograph her subject. The 50mm really is more of an environmental portrait type lens, rather than a tight portrait lens.

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85mm – the first lens that could change your portrait photography

If that hat seems familiar, yes,  Elle was the model in the series of photographs for the Nikon Df review article. For some of the sequences of photos that we shot, I used the 85mm lens, wide open. This had the effect of just melting the background. You can pretty much shoot anywhere, and make the background look good and non-intrusive.

While a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens can be even more effective in controlling the background, the shorter focal length, an 85mm lens can make this somewhat easier in some respects. Specifically, it’s a smaller lens and less intrusive when you photograph portraits. It’s less “threatening” to the person you’re photographing, and easier to carry around.

Just how well can you blur the background when shooting wide open with an 85mm prime lens? Compare the photo above with the pull-back shot, taken with an iPhone from the same spot …

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photography technique: wedding portraits on the beach

I had the great pleasure of photographing Sarah and Antonio’s wedding in Santa Monica, California. For the romantic portrait, we went down to the beach in the late afternoon. With the pier in the background, and with the sun (even at 5pm) still beating down, the photos were going to look vibrant, with that sun-drenched look. Beautiful.

When I posted the photos in an album on Facebook, a number of people asked me about this (and other photos), and how I photographed them. The technique is quite straight-forward, as described in numerous articles on the Tangents blog. With that, instead of just giving the hard numbers of the camera settings, and a few details … I thought it might be better as a challenge to followers of the Tangents blog, to reverse engineer this, and figure out the details. So yes, there’s a little bit of homework involved.

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Fuji X100s – best manual focus camera

As mentioned in my review of the Fuji X100s, they really did improve the AF compared to the X100. Paradoxically enough, just as the AF speed and accuracy of the Fuji X100s gets glowing mention everywhere – it’s just as exciting to discover that the changes they made to the manual focus mode, turns the Fuji X100s (vendor) into possibly the best manual focus camera there is.

Now some will say this camera’s AF is so good that you don’t need manual focus. I’m not convinced of that. The AF is pretty good, but there are times (such as with strong back-lighting), where even my Nikon D4 struggles. Then manual focus can be a huge help. And it makes sense to be familiar with the manual focus options on your camera.

Anyway, here is why I think the way that they implemented manual focus on the Fuji X100s, is so good …

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