The Gear Trap 2 – Lighting

In this second post on gear I am going to look at lighting because after lenses, lighting is another very common question on the Facebook group. They normally run along the line of ” I have a group of people coming in for a shoot. What lighting do I need?”

Unfortunately in all honesty this questions is almost one with the same answer as “how long is a piece of string” because quite frankly the answer lies in what you want to achieve. Lighting is actually more of an art than a science, and the ability to see and manage light is what sets the great photographers apart from the average masses. So in this post I am not going to provide a lighting solution, rather I am only going to look at the types of light available.

At the simplest level you need to have enough light hit the sensor of your camera to provide the level of exposure that you will need. This will either be from a natural source (ie Sun) or some artificial source, or a combination of both.

So the very first thing that you need to decide upon is what sort of shooting you predominately do. If it is mainly outside, or where there is a lot of light, then you may not need any additional equipment other than something that can reflect light. However, if you predominately shoot people or events that occur inside then some form of artificial lighting may be needed. I say “may” rather than “will” because it is possible to shoot inside using the light that is available if you shoot close to a window, or at a very wide aperture or use a longer shutter time.

Assuming that natural light is not available then you have three possible main light sources. These can be classed as

  1. Ambient Light
  2. Continuous Light
  3. Strobes

I will look at each one in more detail. I am going to split the strobes category into speedlights and studio strobes because although they are essentially the same light source there are important differences between them.

Sometimes any light source will suffice.

Ambient Light
This is the light that is available in an area. Inside this would mean any light coming in from outside or from standard room lights. I would not immediate discount the effects that be gained from what we would consider to be normal house lighting.

Pros

  • Does not need any additional gear, other than a reflector to use.
  • You can see what the light is doing.

Cons

  • Not necessarily available in the quantity, or location you need. You need to be very careful because our eyes see in a much wider exposure range than the camera can.
  • You can end up with big differences in the colour temperature of the lights. Our eyes will adjust for this but the camera cannot. Therefore it is vital you always take a grey card image to get the white balance correct.

Continuous lights
These are lighting that are turned on and stay on until turned off. Some are fitted with dimmers or have multiple bulb arrangements that enable the light output to be adjusted. For some you can also purchase light modifiers.

Pros

  • You can see the effect that the light is making on the subject.
  • You do not necessarily need to buy specialised gear, and as such the price you pay for them can be a lot cheaper. For example you can use the type of halogen work lights sold in hardware stores as cheaply as $20.00. For further information there is also quite a range of do it yourself projects on www.diyphotography.net.

Cons

  • The major disadvantage with continuous lights is heat. The units tend to get very hot, which can make them dangerous especially if you are working in an environment with small children around. Note however that in recent year LED panels have come available that get around the heat issue.
  • The light output will not be as powerful as that delivered by strobes.

Speedlights

Speedlights provide very portable lighting

These are the small external flash units that can sit in the flash adapter on your camera. There are generally models made by the camera manufacturers as well as cheaper models make by third party suppliers. The more advanced units can access the metering systems of the camera and adjust the flash power accordingly. I should say that you get the best lighting out of speedlights when you couple them with a trigger that enabled them to be fired when not mounted on the camera. Most have a manual mode that lets you adjust the power output in a range of six stops.

Pros

  • Very portable lighting solution especially when used in Off Camera mode.
  • Generally more powerful that continuous lights.
  • Can access the metering system on the camera.

Cons

  • Not as powerful as studio strobes, and you can run into colour issues once the batteries run down. This can also affect the recycle rate (the time it take for the flash to recharge)
  • You do not see the effect of the light until the flash fires.

Studio Strobes
These are the big brothers of the speedlight which were generally used in a studio, hence the name. They come in a wide range of power output from 200watts up to 1200 watts. Apart from the very cheap models most units come with a second light referred to as modelling lamp, because its purpose is to give you an idea of how the light will fall.

Pros

  • Most powerful of all the light sources
  • Provided the units have modeling lamps them you can see the effect of the light.
  • Generall consistent light output and colour each time they are used.

Cons

  • Unless you buy very expensive units that have batteries most studio strobes need a power supply available.
  • They can be expensive if you buy well known brands rather than “Trade-me” models.

Hopefully this information is useful to you. Light modifiers will be the topic of the next post in this series.

Success at 2012 Wellington Interclub

Third in Urban category

Every year the six photographic clubs in the Wellington area hold an annual competition where each club enters one image in each of ten categories. The 2012 competition was organised by Wellington Photographic Society and held on August 23rd.

My images were selected by the Hutt Camera Club to represent them in three categories  namely

  • Urban
  • Red, Green, Blue
  • Time

I was delighted that on the night they all did very well. The image in the Urban Category (right)  came 3rd while the images in the other two categories (shown below) won.

Winner – Red, Green Blue category

In speaking to the judge afterwards it was apparent that I had been able to create images that created an immediate reaction with the viewer, and which grabbed their attention. This was exactly what I had wanted to achieve.

The shot entered in the urban category was shot in Auckland when I was attending a conference there. It was not specifically shot for the contest but was rather in series I took as part of my “photo a day” challenge. It was taken in the top end of Elliot Street. The staircase so much reminded me of all the television series set in American cities such as New York or Chicago.

The shots in the other two categories were specifically shot for the competition. This blog already contains background information on both images which you can find under RGB, or Time.

Winner – Time category

The final shot above was actually modified right at the end because after I printed it I decided it needed some added punch. That was the change the eye colour to blue. This proved to be a correct decision as the judge commented that it was the eyes that drew the viewer into the image.

These shots were a very collaborative process and I want to express my thanks to Maya and Freya for modeling for them, and special thanks to Sharyn who assisted with some of the post production on them.

Bodyscapes (NSFW)

One of the particular style of images I like to shoot are referred to as Bodyscapes. Basically they are low light nudes where only a part of the body is shot so that it becomes an image of curves rather than of the total body.

From the models point of view bodyscapes never include the face, or enough of the body for them to be easily identified.

Technically they can be a challenge to shoot because unlike a standard studio shoot you can’t meter the because it is not a perfect exposure you are looking for. You also can’t use the histogram because it will be seriously distorted by the amount of black in the image. So you basically have to take images on a trial and error basis.

What is the Blog for?

Yesterday I was watching a rerun of a session that New Zealand photographer Sue Bryce did a couple of months ago as part of a workshop on www.creativelive.com. In the particular section she was talking about marketing your business and particularly how to promote through social media, websites and blogs.

She was a firm advocate of the benefits of blogging, but she did state that you needed a clear idea of what the purpose of the blog was. She also stated that she thought that most photographers blogs were actually aimed at other photographers, rather than clients, and that they were simply an exercise in self gratulation. Sues own blog can be found at http://www.inbedwithsue.com/blog/.

This really got me thinking about this blog and where it had developed without really a clear goal. It started as an extension to the posts I was making on my Facebook page as I wanted to provide context around the images I was taking. It has now moved to include the various articles and random thoughts that I have from time to time. Most of these are aimed at other photographers.

I had also wanted to create a website and using a blogging engine was the simplest way to achieve that.

Now as photography is my passion, rather than something I am trying to make money out of, this blog does not focus entirely on getting work. However this is not to say that I do hope that by showing examples of my work through it, that work will not come my way.

In fact I am a firm believer in karma and that by helping others through this blog that the good will be returned to me in some form. I have certainly found that connections I have made with people have resulted in good things happening.

I would be interested in your own thoughts on this.

The image with this post was a competition entry for a contest run at Wellington Photographic Society where we were given a range of objects to incorporate in images.

Multiple exposure

This morning I did a photoshoot with Renee out at the Massey Memorial on the end of Miramar peninsular. The memorial is made of white marble and in many ways has a resemblance to a Roman structure so this gave me the ideas of creating a composite image.

The morning was high overcast which has the advantage that the lighting would be very even. In fact I used my light meter to discover that the light was a consistent F8 in each of the gaps where I wanted Renee to stand.

Unfortunately it also meant that the light was very flat. I had hoped to use flash to add a little punch but unfortunately I discovered that the flash triggers were still at home.

The camera was set on a tripod and then we shot about 6 images in each position. I used a remote to trigger the camera try to minimise an accidental move in position. Having the camera on the tripod meant that I could ensure that all of the elements (other than Renee) were constant.

Once I got home I selected an image from each location. Loaded them into layers in Photoshop and used a  simple mask to created the image. As I didn’t like the sky that was easily fixed as well.

The finished image is my Shot of the Day for World Photographic Day.

The Gear Trap

I take part in a Facebook group that acts as a support for photographers around the country. The group mainly consists of people new to photography and therefore the questions pop up time and time again about what gear they should buy. Most already have a usable DLRS and a couple of lenses, but seem to have got into the mindset that they need to spend a lot of money to get better. I have decided to call this “the gear trap” because unfortunately there is no 100% guarantee that if you have better gear you will get better photos.

In a series of posts I am going to offer some advice on various pieces of equipment, starting with lenses.

If you buy an entry level DSLR camera then it will always come with a lens attached. If you buy in the higher end then you will often have the choice of a body only purchase. The lens that is attached to a camera, when part of the purchase, is generally referred to as a “kit” lens. Depending upon the package you have bought you may have a single lens or a couple of kit lenses. They will span a focal length from 18mm to 300mm. Kits lenses are generally made out of plastic including the parts that we refer to as “glass” which is why they are light and also fairly robust. While we tend to think of them as cheap if you break one you will discover that they can cost up to $500 to replace.

Now when people on the Facebook group start talking about buying lenses it is generally with the goal of replacing their kit lenses.

So what is wrong with a kit lens.

If you are buying a camera from the likes of Canon, Nikon or Sony then put simply “nothing”. For the most part they will take excellent images and even perfect images if the person operating the camera knows what they are doing. More expensive lens will have a better optics (but not so much that it will be noticeable in most pictures), will focus and track faster and normally will have an aperture that can go larger. However how much that is of use to you depends upon what you are doing.

So before you reach for the credit card to buy that new lens consider the following:

  1. How well do you know the operation of your camera? Put bluntly if you have no idea what the effect of shutter speed, aperture and ISO have in getting images then putting a better piece of glass on the camera is not going to make a blind bit of difference to the majority of the end results.
  2. Work out a clear idea of what it is you will be shooting the most and then see if you can shoot it with the gear you have. When I started shooting it was mainly sports that took my fancy. The 70-300mm lens I had with my camera was more than adequate shooting my daughter play netball or to capture the local club rugby game, but it failed miserably when I tried to capture her in roller skating competitions. The difference between the sports was that there was less light in the indoor environment. The answer was a 70-200 F2.8 lens in this case.But on the other hand most of my model shoots were in the studio under lighting that I could control. I was shooting mostly at F8 so didn’t need a lens capable of F2.8 and so I shot with the lens that came with the camera for nearly 3 years. It is still used a lot for these types of shoot.
  3. Are there other ways to improve the final result? A lot of poor images are often the lack of light rather than issues with optics quality. While better lenses generally allow you to operate in lower light, the same results can be achieved by introducing other light sources. Your camera’s built in focus doesn’t actually know what it is seeing when it focuses. Rather it is looking for the point where the contrast is the colours is at it’s strongest. This is why cameras have problems focusing when the light is lower.
  4. Determine what your upgrade path is likely to be for bodies. Until around 10 years ago pretty much any SLR lens that came from a manufacturer would fit and work on the other bodies that they made. This is no longer the case. While the higher end lenses specifically designed for full frame camera will generally work on crop sensor bodies, lens designed specifically for crop sensor bodies may not work on full frame cameras. Also not all cameras (especially entry level ones) have the lens focus motor built in so they require the lens to have its own motor. There is little point in buying a whole lot of lenses that will not work later if you plan to move to full frame at some stage, because the lenses are likely to outlast the body.

Finally if you do decide that you want to go with better glass then a great start is with a 50mm F1.8. They are relatively cheap at just under $200, are quite fast and enable you to go into low light situations. And because you can’t zoom them you need to think about where you place yourself and move to get the shot.

My Photoshop Philosophy

In my previous article entitled “The Photoshop Effect” I made three points that I thought Photoshop was

a) Producing lazy photographers, and
b) affecting the way we look at images
c) distorting our view of the world

The previous article discussed the first two, and in this post I will cover the third point.

People are aware that we are bombarded by thousands of images each day through magazines, billboards and television and that in recent times there has been real questions about the about of retouching that is happening especially in magazines that target females.

Perfect smiles, perfect hair, perfect shapes and perfect skin leap off these pages so it is easy to imagine that these are the examples you should strive to achieve. Now with a good makeup artists, hair stylist and a photographer who knows about lighting and posing you can produce great looking images, but the magazines want more and so, unfortunately in just about every case the images have been manipulated.

If you want to see how much actually goes on then there is a simple test to do. Find an article where a celebrity is in favour and one where  the celebrity is not. In the former case the images are generally staged. Hair, makeup and styling is done and full lighting is used. Odds are that any little wrinkles that slip through in this stage will be removed later. But for the celebrity out of favour no such luxury. The shots here are generally paparazzi taken in the street under harsh light and are designed to show the person at their worst. It is doubtful that any post production will be done on these images.

The reality is that the later shots actually reflect reality.

Just about every model I have shot has had some body issues and quite frankly I lay the blame at the magazines for making these worse.  I have not yet encountered a model that does not have stretch marks on some parts of her body, yet you will never see them in the magazine.

Now as i shoot model portfolios I am not so stupid as to say that I will not retouch an image myself because quite frankly that would not be fair if the person is trying to present the best of view of themselves.  However I will initially try to minimize the need for it with hair, makeup and lighting.

Then with regard to the retouching I have developed my own photoshop philosophy and a set of guidelines that I will usually apply when handling model portfolios.

  1. Skin must look like skin and not be so altered that it looks like plastic. (if I wanted to shoot Barbie I would start with a mannequin)
  2. I will remove blemishes (such as acne) but I will only remove scars after I have checked with the person if they want them removed.
  3. I will brighten eyes and enhance the natural colour but I won’t change it.
  4. I will only use the liquidify tool to correct bulges caused by clothing, or posing, or in the case of a recent model where she had recently given birth. I will not however use it simply to slim someone down.

If, however, I am shooting a concept piece then I may well give the image more of a retouch.