Monday, June 6, 2011

Hmm. Photography.

So I decided I really wanted to take some pictures, studio or not. I rented a hotel suite for cheaper than I could have rented a studio space even for one day (thanks,!)

This is a model I'd worked with before a long time ago - her name is Angie. She was pretty young when I first worked with her, and it's really very interesting to see how her face has matured. She's going to be a very striking woman as she ages, I think. In addition to some images she wanted for her portfolio we of course had to shoot for my Girls in Towels project. Never pass up a good bathroom, that's my motto.

Is she adorable, or what?

The images don't have as much kick as they might due to the lighting and the fact that we saved this for last and it was REALLY late. But they're still fun and I feel good about 'em.
More after the jump - click here!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review of DIY Ring Flash from... DIY Lighting Kits

Okay, if you must, go ahead and get the whole "if you bought it, it's not a DIY project" out of your systems. I'll wait.

Still here? Good. This is a review of the DIY Ring Flash Kit from DIY Lighting Kits, the retail venture of DIY Photography.

The DIY Ring Flash is sold in a kit form, and ships in a flat envelope. As one commenter put it, it looks like you're assembling an oddly shaped pizza box until you're done. It has an inner section made of cardboard which has an inner reflective surface, and an outer section made out of black vinyl quite similar to the material that three-ring-binders are covered with.

It's quite easy to assemble, for the most part. You should pre-crease the folds of the cardboard bit pretty good before you start as this makes assembly easier. Also, if you're fussy like me, wear gloves so you don't get fingerprints all over the reflector. I used some cheap disposable cotton gloves I have to wear when I'm making prints. The instructions aren't clear on whether or not the center ring goes inside or outside the center aperture: the manufacturer says it's meant to go outside (which is much easier) but I put it inside because I thought that looked better. If you do that be very careful not to mess up the ring by bending it. If you bend it it will crease and you will get a dull spot. Since I didn't do that I don't know if it would be a big deal (I suspect not) but just avoid it and you won't have to care.

You will want the optional bracket. Just buy it when you buy the flash and save the aggravation. I bent mine in a vise over a round form, but that's optional. I would recommend that you bend it over something with a round edge as opposed to a square countertop, it will help avoid excessive stress on the bend. The bending template has a lot of slack in it, so don't worry if your camera's not listed or you don't get the bend in just the right place. Just use the mark for the camera closest to yours. I have a Rebel T1i (aka the EOS 500D) and I used the one for the other small dSLR's (50D, etc.) Works fine. Some people have noted that they have issues using the bracket with a gripped camera: I have the Canon grip for my Rebel and I didn't notice any issues. I did bend the bracket on the conservative side so I'd have a little more up and a little less out, but it still mounts on my tripod fine and the lens is right dead center in the aperture.

I have a 580EX flash which is one of the larger on-camera strobe units you can buy. It would not fit into the flash head aperture as-is. The manufacturer is also clear about this and the fix is easy: you just cut little slits in the corners of the aperture. I made about a half-inch cut on all four corners, and the flash slipped right in. Be careful with the rubber-bands: they are very strong but do not have a lot of stretch. I broke one trying to make the pattern the example shows with the crossovers. Fortunately two seem to hold the flash fine and rubber bands are not hard to come by.

Once it's all assembled it's pretty straightforward and works like any other ring flash. Here's a picture I took while I was messing around with it. Ironically the layered Damascene steel looks better with more directional lighting but note the nice even light with no shadows.


Cheap, cheap, cheap. A powered ring flash is several hundred dollars, a plastic Ray Flash is around $200, this thing was $47 with shipping and bracket. No comparison.

It's fun to assemble your own stuff even if it's not "real" DIY.

It is a ring flash and appears to be a reasonably consistent and symmetric example of same. Insert standard ring flash "pros" list here. :)

Very fast service, although that's not related to the thing itself. I ordered it Sunday night after seeing it on the Strobist site and I had it Wednesday morning.


It's not really fair to say the lightweight nature of the unit is a con, as you are getting a $30 ring flash out of this deal and frankly, it's sturdier than I thought it would be. However, the bracket really could be sturdier as the whole assembly vibrates for a few minutes if you so much as touch it. I think I may have a machinist friend of mine make me one out of a slightly sturdier metal. I got around this by putting the whole deal on a tripod and then using my camera's remote shutter release after the vibrations died down.

The device does cost you approximately two stops of flash output, maybe a little more, I would assume both from inefficiencies and from increasing the effective area of the flash output. If somebody wants to send me a Ray Flash to compare it with, I'd be happy to oblige. With the setup for the picture above, at ISO400 and manual 1/1 flash output I couldn't do better than f7.1 without pushing the shadows too far. The unit was about three feet away from the target. (I couldn't get closer because I was using a prime lens.)

Because of the way it's constructed, there's no way to fire the thing with the flash attached to your camera's hot shoe. Well, you could, but not with the camera lens in the center aperture for maximum ringlightosity. (They are very clear about this on the site, but some people apparently don't see that.) I use my wireless flash trigger. You could also use a sync cord if your flash supports that. (You can buy a sync cord adapter for your hot shoe if your camera doesn't have a sync port. They're very inexpensive.) The other thing this means that you don't necessarily anticipate is that there is a LONG arm of stuff that goes down from the unit. You can't hold it very close to your body if you want any angle at all. It gets in the way of your tripod head adjustments from many angles and would doubtless also hinder mounting it on a light stand in certain ways.

This can make it really hard to use a tripod with any sort of downward angle. Since it also makes the thing very tippy, angling your tripod to compensate can be a real headache. My tripod (a Manfrotto) has a deal where you can take the center column and make it a horizontal arm. With this and some creative tripod configuration (it looks like a big spider) I was able to point the unit, mounted on the camera, at about a 30 degree downward angle. Any more down that that would be very tricky, especially since the weight of the flash will try to pull the unit closer to vertical. There's no way you could shoot straight down with it without some additional bracing means.


This is a fun way to experiment with a ring flash for not very much money. If you like putting things together it's fun and easy. (If you don't like that kind of thing don't buy it, period.) You get what you pay for, of course, but in this case you at least get a good value for the small amount of money involved.

More after the jump - click here!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Camera Straps

It is a very popular discussion question 'mongst photographers: "Okay, you've bought your camera. What should you buy next?" Well, my answer is dependent on which camera you bought. If it didn't come with vertical controls/grip and that is available as an option, that is what you should buy next. But either after that, or if you don't need it or can't get it the very first thing, you should buy a new strap.

Think, everybody, think. You just spent several hundred to multiple thousands of dollars on a camera. You're going to keep the cheap, ugly, painful strap the camera came with just so you would have a strap if you had to use it RIGHT THIS SECOND? Don't be a cheapskate now.

Manufacturer's straps have two things in common:

1) They're cheap.

2) They're ugly.

Now, ugly I can live with - all my straps are still plain black, although at least I'm no longer a walking advertisement for Canon - but cheap, I refuse to. Those straps are thin, so they cut your neck. They have no padding and no elasticity, so they hurt your back and can really give you a good smack if you drop the camera too hard. They have no swivels so they get tangled up easy, and they are usually too short if you're of more than average height. Not. Acceptable.

Now, at the very least you can spend twenty bucks and get a padded strap from any camera store. Get one with swivels, so it's easy to re-orient if it twists or tangles, and get one with quick-releases so you can take it off or loop it onto things if you need to. (I have been known to loop my camera strap around chair rungs and whatnot to make it impossible to snatch-and-grab. I do this with my bag, too.)

These padded straps are basically just upgrades for the standard neck strap design. If you want to really have fun, start looking at some of the more advanced strap designs and even strap systems. For instance, I have a Black Rapid RS-4. (See: I got it for Christmas - it was on my wishlist because I'd heard they were good. However, I hadn't got around to putting it on a body yet when I tried one on somebody else's camera at a photography workshop recently. Wow! This was a full-frame DSLR with grip, zoom and strobe rigged, but when I put that over my shoulder it was like it wasn't even there. I promptly went and dug it out and will be rigging it sometime in the next few days.

My other main strap is an OP/Tech Utility Strap. (See: It's heavily padded and has a lot of give to it, so even if the camera bounces around my neck all day, it won't chafe or dig in. I have a Calumet AirCell strap which I also like: I may keep that one on my backup body and replace the OP/Tech one with the RS-4. (See: I really like the curved straps as they do add a little more comfort as well as being less likely to slip and slide since they follow the curve of your neck better.

Oh, and if you just HAVE to be different, there are also any number of colored and/or decorated versions out there. OP/Tech straps come in several colors, and if you need more, just shop around. There are even hipster straps:
More after the jump - click here!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Intro to Exposure Controls

This is a quick post on the three exposure controls on digital cameras and what they do so I can refer people to it when I wish to pontificate on the Interwebz. Feel free to read it: comments invited.

Digital cameras have three exposure controls. Three. That's it. That's all. Learn what they do and you've mastered exposure. At least the technical part.

They are:

1) Shutter speed.

2) Aperture.

3) ISO (Equivalent) Setting.

Those are the ONLY THREE THINGS that control the exposure of your photograph. However, they interact: changing one can make what the other ones do change as well. But fear not: it's entirely logical. There is another setting called "EV" which stands for Exposure Value, and I will talk about what that does, but it does NOT AFFECT the three settings here when you are in manual mode. It only matters when you are in an auto exposure mode such as Program, Tv or Av.

In full manual mode, you have full control over these settings and they will be whatever you set them to. That means if you tell the camera to take a thirty second exposure of the sun at noon on a clear day, it will let you, and you will burn out your image sensor. (If you are looking through the viewfinder you will burn out your personal image sensor, aka the Mark I Eyeball, too.) So don't do that.

Another technical clarification: the word "stop" is used a lot in photography, and not not just by models when Terry Richardson is on location. (Zing!) A "stop," in the generic sense, is a doubling of the exposure of the image. If you go up a stop or increase by one stop, you double the amount of light which contributes to the exposure. If you go down a stop or decrease by one stop, you halve it. Any of the three controls can be used to "stop up" or "stop down" in terms of total exposure. What really makes this maddening is that aperture is measured in "f-stops," which are related but not the same, and usually when a photographer says "stop up" or "stop down," they are specifically referring to changing the aperture value. After discussing each control, I will specify what would constitute a one-stop movement in both directions by means of that control.

Here we go.

1) Shutter speed.

The simplest and most intuitive. This is just "how long do you want me to open the shutter and let light into the camera?" It's measured in fractions of a second. Most digital cameras can shoot at fast as 1/500th of a second and many can go as low as 1/10000th of a second, which is pretty darn fast. To "freeze" a human walking at a normal pace, you want a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second or less. Any slower, and you will get "motion blur," which is just blur caused by the fact that the subject moved while the shutter was open. You should use the fastest shutter speed you can get away with to minimize both "motion blur," caused by the motion of the subject, and "camera shake," caused by moving the camera. (Nobody has perfectly still hands.) Shutter speed affects exposure linearly. Open the shutter twice as long, get twice as much light, get an image with twice as much exposure. Open it half as long, get half as much light, get an image with half as much exposure. Often, when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, you will have no choice but to use a very fast shutter speed to keep your image from being overexposed, since there are limits to how low you can go with both ISO and aperture. Once you hit them, your only choice is to lower shutter speed. At a very high shutter speed, say 1/1000 or higher, you can shoot under almost any light you can bear to look at without overexposing your image.

Stop adjustment: Doubling your shutter speed (going from 1/30th of a second to 1/15th of a second) will increase exposure by one stop. Halving it (going from 1/30th of a second to 1/60th of a second) will decrease exposure by one stop.

2) ISO Equivalence.

This controls how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light. It usually starts at 100 (200 for most Nikon cameras) and goes up to at least 400, although some high end cameras go into the tens of thousands. It's also completely linear: take a picture at ISO100, and then take the same picture at ISO200 with all other settings the same. The second photograph will be twice as bright. Go from ISO400 to ISO200, and the image will be half as bright. The reason you don't always shoot at the highest ISO you can is that the higher the ISO setting, the "noisier" the image will be. Noise (also sometimes referred to as "grain" because it looks similar to film grain, though it's caused by a different phenomenon) can make images all but unusable at very high ISO settings, so you should always set the ISO as low as you can and still get the exposure you want, or at least at the lowest setting in which your camera has acceptable noise output. I usually have my Canon SLR's set to ISO400 as a default: when working in bright light or in a studio I lower it to ISO100. ISO100 can be pretty dim in anything but direct sunlight or under strobes, so it's safer if you leave it set up a notch or two in case you want to make some quick snapshots in unanticipated or unknown future lighting.

Stop adjustment: Doubling your ISO setting (going from ISO200 to ISO400) results in a one-stop increase in exposure. Halving it (going from ISO800 to ISO400) results in a one-stop decrease in exposure.

3) Aperture.

This is the one that usually causes confusion 'mongst photography newbies. The aperture is a mechanical device in your camera (in an SLR, it's in the lens: every lens has its own aperture) which opens and closes to control how much light comes in. It's basically the size of the "hole" that the light can come through. Increasing the aperture allows more light in: decreasing it lets less light in. However, because the hole is a two-dimensional circle, it's not linear in effect. Doubling the size of the aperture increases the amount of light that hits the sensor by a factor of four. (Because the area of a circle varies as the square of its radius.) To really make things fun, aperture is measured not in absolute units like square inches or square centimeters, but as a dimensionless ratio called an "f-stop." When you hear somebody say "stopping down" or "stopping up," they are talking about decreasing or increasing the aperture.

"But that's backwards," you may say, and you are right. The ratio is the ratio of the focal length of the lens to the diameter of the aperture. So if you have a 50mm focal length lens, and a 50mm aperture, your f-stop is 1.0. If you have a 50mm focal length and a 25mm aperture, your f-stop is 2.0. So you can see that going from f1.0 to f2.0 doubles the "f-number," but as I noted above, that means that you cut the amount of light to a quarter as much. (Because a circle with a diameter of 50mm has four times the area of a circle with a diameter of 25mm.) So when you increase f-number (go to a larger f-stop) you are decreasing aperture, and therefore decreasing exposure. Because of the physics of all this, the f-numbers are not linear and tend to be very weird numbers, and range dramatically. Your average beginner lens is going to have a maximum aperture of f4 or f5 or so, and a minimum aperture of f32 or thereabouts. A really "fast" lens, so called because it has a large maximum aperture and therefore allows faster shutter speeds, might be down to f1.4, f1.2, or even f1.0 although lenses at f1.0 are both rare and insanely expensive.

Now, just as with shutter speed and ISO equivalence, there is a tradeoff when discussing aperture. The bigger the aperture (the smaller the f-number) the more light gets in. So since you're letting in more light, you can use a lower ISO and/or a faster shutter speed. O frabjous day, right? Well, no. There are two downsides (or one downside and one mixed blessing) to using large apertures.

The downside is that lenses tend to have a "sweet spot" in the middle of their aperture range where their optical performance is maximized. My 50mm f1.4 (lenses are usually described by giving their focal length and their maximum aperture) gives a much clearer, sharper image if I stop it down to f2.0 or f2.2 compared to full-open f1.4. This also applies to the smallest aperture settings, but the difference can be profound at the bottom because of the huge amount of light coming in that the lens has to collate.

The mixed blessing is that the larger the aperture, the smaller the "depth of field." Depth of field indicates how much of the image is in focus relative to the object in clearest focus. If depth of field is large, everything or most everything in the picture will be in focus. If depth of field is small (narrow) then anything any distance from the object of focus will start to blur. At a wide-open aperture, a portrait can have the subject's eyes in focus but their nose may have significant blur. Now, obviously if you want the sharpest picture possible you want to use the smallest aperture you can get away with, but if you are actively trying to blur out extraneous objects (things in the background, etc) this can be a very effective tool. Unless it's a very low-light situation (in which case you open up your aperture to allow the fastest possible shutter speed) selecting aperture is more an artistic decision than a technical one, and the other two settings then become subservient to the aperture desired.

Stop adjustment: Going up one f-stop results in a one-stop increase in exposure. Going down one f-stop results in a one-stop decrease in exposure. However, the f-stop settings on the vast majority of lenses are fractional. (Remember, the aperture is built into the LENS. If your camera can use different lenses, it will have varying aperture ranges.) For a typical SLR lens, here is a one-third F-stop chart.

1.0 1.1 1.2 1.4 1.6 1.8 2 2.2 2.5 2.8 3.2 3.5 4 4.5 5.0 5.6 6.3 7.1 8 9 10 11 13 14 16 18 20 22

Every three increments on that chart (say, going from f1.0 to f1.4) is a full stop. Note that it is extremely nonlinear (it's based on powers of two.) So f1.0 to f1.4 is one stop, but so is f16 to f22! This is why aperture is so confusing to new photographers, especially those without a background in science or mathematics. To a mathematically oriented individual this chart is laughably simple and makes perfect sense. Everybody else basically needs to memorize it, or else just count clicks on their aperture control. (That latter is much easier. :) )

Bonus: EV Control.

EV control, also called exposure compensation or EV compensation, is a way of using auto-exposure calculation on your camera but still having some manual input. When you are in full automatic mode, the camera will select both a shutter speed and an aperture (and maybe an ISO, although most cameras use the manual ISO setting even in most auto modes.) You can set the EV to tell the camera to fudge a bit. If you increase the EV, or set it higher, you are telling the camera, "Figure out what you think is the best exposure, and then shoot a little bit brighter." The camera will decrease shutter speed (holding the shutter open longer) or increase aperture (letting in more light) or both, depending on its programming. If you decrease EV, it will do the opposite. This can be very useful both for artistic effect and because cameras, while they're pretty smart these days, don't actually know what you're shooting or what you care about in the image. If the main subject is well lit but the rest is dark, it may overexpose the subject trying to make the whole picture even, or vice versa. In that case you'd lower the EV so it would expose for the main subject properly. If the whole image area is very bright, you might actually want to increase EV so the camera doesn't make it dingy trying to even it out. (Cameras are notorious, for instance, for underexposing snowscapes because they think they're brighter than they actually are. When shooting outside in winter, always see if upping your EV doesn't brighten your snow.)

If you're in Program Mode or full-autoexposure mode, the camera will take your EV setting and do as it deems best. Might open the aperture, might lower shutter speed, whatever. You have no say in the matter. Where EV is useful to the fairly serious photographer is in the two modes known as Shutter Priority (abbreviated Tv, for Time Value) and Aperture Priority (abbreviated Av.) These are semi-automatic modes where you manually set one value (shutter speed or aperture, respectively) and ask the camera to figure out the other value according to its programming. Say I am shooting a basketball game, but the light's not even so I can't set to full manual. I could set to Tv, and tell the camera I want 1/200th of a second shutter speed (which will freeze even a fairly fast-moving athlete with no motion blur.) The camera will adjust the aperture according to the light it measures every time I take a shot. Further suppose that I like my pictures dark and broody: I could tell the camera to use an EV of -2, which translates to: "Calculate the exposure according to my set shutter speed of 1/200, and when you pick an aperture, then stop it down two more EV values so the picture is darker than you think it should be." Contrarily, suppose I am shooting a portrait and I want a soft, dreamy picture with a very narrow depth of field. I can set to maximum aperture in Av mode, and then up my EV so my picture is bright and cheerful compared to the neutral exposure the camera would otherwise try to achieve.

EV is usually in fractional stops, but varies, you'll have to read your manual to know how your camera does it. Mine does it, as do most SLR's, as a third of a stop per EV point. On full-manual, it does nothing, because there is nothing for the EV to "adjust." The camera is going to shoot at the shutter speed and aperture you programmed. But it can be very useful in the semi-auto modes.

Stop adjustment: It depends on your camera's settings. Most cameras allow a one-stop increase or decrease in EV, with both directions having three fractional stop adjustments. If this is the case, every click you move the EV up from zero increases exposure by a third of a stop, with movement to the end of the range (usually three clicks) resulting in a one-stop increase in exposure from the camera's calculated target exposure. Note that this is a relative change, unlike the other three stop adjustments: it changes it relative to what the camera thinks it should be. If the lighting changes, so will what the camera thinks the exposure should be, but you will still always get the same relative adjustment to that calculation.
More after the jump - click here!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Little Google Fodder for auction house Guernseys

Here is a post by well-known photographer Ctein at The Online Photographer's blog. (The Online Photographer is Mike Johnston: Ctein is a frequent guest poster there.)

How To Make a Small Fortune In the Art Business

Summary: Ctein tried to have Guernseys (Guernsey's? Guernseys'?) auction off several rare photographs from his collection. The auction didn't go well, which was disappointing but understandable, and they returned several of the prints which didn't sell. However, they were returned with sufficient damage to reduce their collector's value to essentially zero. Guernseys refused to discuss the matter with Ctein and referred him to the insurance company, which settled fairly reasonably but told him he'd have to seek the deductible from Guernseys despite the fact that their release mentioned Guernseys as a released party. Guernseys of course refused to pay anything and has exhibited the most reprehensible conduct during the entire affair.

Obviously, we're only hearing one side of this, but having dealt with insurance companies before, I have absolutely no trouble believing this. Personally, I find this absolutely deplorable. I really have to wonder, even being a lawyer, if Guernseys really didn't buy themselves more than five thousand dollars worth of bad publicity (not to mention bad karma) by their actions. The Internet is forever, guys. More after the jump - click here!

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Advice to the Minions of Satan

Here is a comment I wrote to a radical leftist complaining that radical leftists are unrepresented in the blogosphere. ( for original post.) It Amused me, so I thought I'd record it for posterity. Comments welcome.

Explanatory note:

One of the earlier comments to the post read: "This entire post can be reduced to "I didn't get the memo that Communism failed." There's no hyper-left blogosphere in America because there's no hyper-left in America, as you so keenly observed in noting that we alone in the west lack a serious socialist party. What you have failed to observe in tandem is that there is a very good reason for that." The response by the original poster was, "I am not a Communist."

Now, my comment:

I find your tossaway answer above to the "didn't get the memo" comment intriguing. You're not a Communist. Fine. If you don't mind a little advice from the Loyal Opposition, here's a suggestion:

Communism was the bogey of American politics, except for Marxist campus types, for decades. The world's largest Communist power had nuclear missiles pointed at all our heads, fought us in proxy wars that killed tens of thousands of Americans, and said it would bury us all in the name of the People while its actual, non-capitalized people lived in obvious squalor (compared to Americans) which was denied laughably. Eventually, it collapsed utterly and caused even more chaos. Americans don't like the word Communist. They don't like being threatened (nobody does,) they don't like being told they're evil (ditto) and they don't like a loser, and Communism is the biggest loser most Americans can think of since the Confederate States.

They don't like the idea of Communism, is what I'm trying to say here. And then here you come, saying, "Oh, no, I'm not a Communist, I'm a $WHATEVER," but saying basically the same things American Communist apologists spouted the whole time all this was going on.

Don't point me at Wikipedia. Don't tell me to read some dense tome. Tell me in a hundred words or less why you're not a Communist, what the difference between you and Communists is, and why we wouldn't end up where the Communists did if you were in charge instead of the murderous leaders they started out with or the bureaucraticly inept apathetic tyrants they ended up with. That's your job. That's your burden, that's your cross. Drop her, Jack, and all be lost.

But do it, and somebody, somewhere, over the age of twenty-five who's ever had to work for a living may actually listen to what you say. I won't, because I think that you are an agent of the Adversary. But somebody might. Probably more people than would ever listen to me, because parts of what you say are much more appealing than anything I have to offer. Fail, and the right-wing sleazeballs will continue to rule populist opinion and you will stay right where you are.

And if you challenge any of my assertions about historical Communism above, you've lost already. They lost. Demonstrably. Provably. Utterly. And what I said is the common understanding of How The S**t Went Down. You will NOT change it. Ever. Defending it only brands you with the Loser Brand. You can only make progress if you make yourself distinct from it. If you can't do that, you lose.

More after the jump - click here!