Manual Exposure Epiphany & A Sunday Walk

I’ve had a “Daily” folder of photographs since 2009.  The first were portraits of a contractor’s kids that came with Dad to see the finished addition he’d built us. Next  were thunder clouds & a plane on approach to RDU, made from a parking lot in Morrisville. I was starting to look around and see.  My Epiphany was taking control by using manual exposure to make the images I saw, instead of hoping the camera’s programmers knew what I was thinking.

My gateway to Manual Exposure was reading Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure” and reading The Ultimate Exposure Computer until I knew it.  Bought the first at Barnes & Noble, the other is a free download.  I’m not affiliated with Amazon, just wanted to show the book.

Understanding exposure is very straight forward but it takes some effort to learn a few ideas and then, practice to get used to them.  If you learned it with film, you still got it.  Like riding a bicycle.  That doesn’t mean you’ll qualify for the Tour de  Paris but you can probably get where you want to go.

So yesterday, like a lot of days since, I took along a camera and it wasn’t a paid shoot.  It’s the practice thing.  It’s the “how” part and the muscle memory and seeing which all need to be used or they atrophy.  It partly explains why I’ve been using the same brand and series of cameras since 2007.  I can and do use them in the dark, by feel.  The benefit from frequent camera use is getting rid of the self consciousness and preoccupation while out with the “really nice camera”.  It’s simply a tool, use it. That enables the good part, which brings us back to yesterdays walk.

What could be better on a beautiful Sunday afternoon before dinner than a walk?

Image 1 is “Buddy” who is a rescue dog and skittish about strangers and a regular on our walks.  While his owner does yard chores, he surveys his realm. Each time we’ve met, he has allowed us closer.  On this visit with his owner, he didn’t run away. He briefly ignored me when I knelt down to his nose level because my wife spoke to him.  I set exposure before I knelt, knowing he wasn’t staying put.  It was “Sunny 16” except for the patch of shade on him.  I got one frame before he moved away.  The good news is, his owner asked for my card and wants to have a family portrait made. Which is another reason to go walkabout with a camera.  I don’t take the trash out without a business card. Trust me, you’ll need it when you don’t have it.

  1. Buddy: Top Lit, hard sun & patches of shade, medium key, f8, 1/320, ISO 400.

01 Loop Walk

The next two images are two different mailboxes and two different exposures.

2.  Blue Clematis: Top lit, low key, shaft of sun light coming through trees like a spotlight, surrounded by shade.  Lit like a studio setup by Mother Nature, saw this walking down the street.  F8, 1/400 and ISO 100 so Sunny 16 except I swapped two stops of aperture for two stops of shutter speed in my exposure budget.

02 Loop Walk3.  Blue Clematis: Top lit with the soft diffuse light of heavy shade and some bits of hazy sun. Medium key, f2.8, 1/800, ISO 400 so Sunny 16 minus 4 stops.   A week ago, there was only one blossom.  Had to back up as my lens had a MFD ( Minimum Focus Distance) of 3 ft.  I used  the maximum aperture of f2.8 to emphasize the flat single plane of the blossoms in sharper focus from the rest of the background.  Shutter speed of 1/800 for wind picking up.

03 Loop Walk4. Hybrid Encore Azalea: These are still blooming and just like them. Back Light, hard direct sun, high contrast, low key.   F8 to keep the whole blossom sharp and I maxed my shutter to 1/8000 to make the background go dark, bumped ISO to 800 which is still pretty noise free.

04 Loop Walk

Image 5 is actually is two frames side by side to show the difference when you  move a little with the same exposure but different backgrounds. This is a flower box on our deck rail.  On the left image, I crouched down so the background was the dark tree canopy.  On the right, I stood up an swiveled a bit so the bright Tulip Poplar trunk was the background.  

5. Two Exposures of a violet flower: Top front light, hard sun, low and medium key respectively.  F2.8, 1/2500, ISO 200 or just about Sunny 16 except 2.8 to isolate the blossom from the background, almost 4 1/2 stops of shutter speed to offset the wide aperture and the wind and ISO 200 for a little bump in sensitivity.

05 Loop WalkI could have made all these images with Program, or Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority Modes but they wouldn’t have looked like I wanted.  Also and importantly, I could make one exposure decision and then frame with the zoom without having to recalculate for variable aperture.  All my lenses are constant aperture.

None of these will win awards but I have to make them to have a chance.

Gear used in this post: Pentax K5IIs camera, Pentax 50-135/2.8 lens.

Editing Tools used in this post: Adobe CC2015, Nik Collection, Pixel Genius Photokit, Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet, Pantone Huey Pro


Made In The U.S.A.

Commercial product photography is rare for me but I’m always pleased when  clients call me back.  In the spring of 2014, I did a shoot for the website of Curtis Blake Leather.  This spring, their assignment was to photograph a new line of wine and beer totes with the idea of having some images for boutique magazine use.

01 CB 2016The first step, just like a portrait session, was to meet with the client, learn about the products, what they wanted and propose some ideas.  My client wanted to use a setting we’d used before.  It suited the products and it would help maintain a consistent look and feel with the existing web content.  I proposed some studio setups that would allow me to control the lighting more completely than an outdoor location.  We agreed on some approaches and I planned the shoots(s).

While the lighting was very different for the outdoor and indoor setups, some basics were the same.

To get the sharpest possible image, the camera was mounted on a tripod and the shutter triggered remotely.  I also used a shutter release with a 2 second delay and MLU ( Mirror Lock Up).  The tripod holds the camera still and the remote trigger eliminates vibration by not touching the camera shutter button.  When the shutter is tripped, the mirror in a SLR or DSLR flips up, introducing vibration. Locking the mirror up and using a 2 second delay before the shutter fires allows the mirror vibrations to dampen, maximizing sharpness. Mirrorless cameras eliminate this variable.

Outdoors, I used an aperture of f8. Generally 2 or 3 stops from the widest aperture is the sharpest or “sweet spot” of a lens.  I didn’t need a wide aperture to isolate the subject from background, everything was in the same plane of focus.

Lighting the outdoor images was a matter of balancing the ambient light with a pair of manual speed lights or hot shoe flashes.  Without the flashes, everything would look flatter and the texture of the leather barely seen.   With flash, I could establish the modelling and contrast I wanted, to show the product at its best. It was a simple setup with two remotely triggered flashes on light stands, camera left and right.  Ambient or daylight was part of the “fill” and the speed lights were “main” or “key”.  As always, I moved them and adjusted power to get the direction and ratios I wanted.  Instant review on a digital camera is the modern Polaroid test shot and it’s a wonderful tool.  While I didn’t make detailed notes of the lighting setup, I did use “snoots” to concentrate the flash output.  Using bare flash as a point source gave me the hard light I wanted to match the character of the leather.

Indoors was more complex to setup but simpler to light.  Ambient light was a non issue.  I set my aperture for f11, ISO 100 and Shutter for 1/160 so if there was no flash, the image was completely dark.  The only light that would be recorded would come from the flash.  When I had the set built, I put a single gridded light on a boom directly above the setup. Again, I moved it adjusted power to get the directions and ratio I wanted. The grid let me keep the light where I wanted on the product and off the background for the dramatic lighting ratio.

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Gear used in this post: Pentax K5IIs camera, Pentax 17-70/4 lens, Manfrotto 055XProB Tripod, YN-560III Speedlights, YN-560 TX Remote Trigger, Vello Wired Remote, Expoimaging Rogue Flash Grid & Flashbender, Impact Multiboom Light Stand and Reflector Holder, Savage 53″ Seamless Paper, Gaffers Tape

Editing Tools used in this post: Adobe CC2015, Nik Collection, Pixel Genius Photokit, Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet, Pantone Huey Pro


Spring Walk

Our neighborhood is coming alive with Spring.  Oaks and Maples are almost fully open, Daffodils are long gone and the Azaleas are in full bloom.  Just before dinner, we took a much welcome walk, been spending too much time in my office chair.  Took along a camera and made a few stops along the way.

1. Blue Clematis: Top lit with the soft diffuse light of open shade, medium key.01 Loop WalkSpotted this single Blue Clematis at the base of a mailbox.  The street was heavily shaded and protected from a windy afternoon.  This is an easy exposure that the camera meter will usually get right.  I could get close since my lens has a MFD ( Minimum Focus Distance) of 12″. I used  the maximum aperture of f4 to emphasize the center or the “star” in sharper focus from the rest of the “supporting cast”.  Shutter speed of 1/200 was plenty fast for still air.  That left me with an essentially noise free ISO 800.  Had I used my Incident Meter, which I leave set at ISO 100, it would have read an EV (Exposure Value) of 9 or -6 Stops from EV 15 aka Sunny 16 Rule.

Near our front door, Azaleas are blooming.  Common in the American South, I never tire of them.  Originally from Asia and I felt connected when I saw some walking down a residential street in Japan.  My photographs of them still haven’t captured their iridescence and textures so I keep trying.

2. Hybrid Encore Azalea: Back Light, hard direct sun, high contrast, low key.02 Loop Walk3. Hybrid Encore Azalea: Front light, hard direct sun, high contrast, low key.03 Loop WalkThese were lit with the hard, directional sun of late afternoon which will provide some modelling vs the flat overhead light of mid-day. Open to the wind, I needed a fast shutter speed to prevent blur, even as I waited between gusts.  I had no flash to stop movement.  I stopped down to f8 for more DoF ( Depth of Field) as I wanted the blossom to be sharp from front to back.  It would be the “Star”.  Leaving my ISO at 800, I bumped my Shutter Speed up until the Histogram looked good and it was fast enough to freeze the wind motion.

Number 2 is back lit so the sun shines through the translucent blossom, letting us see how it grows. It helps show the iridescence.

Number 3 is front lit (I simply moved around) and is how most will photograph the blossom.

During editing, I got rid of background distractions, especially bright spots that take attention away from the “Star” and branches that lead the eye out of the frame.  The goal is to keep impact by not diluting the dominant element and maintaining interest in the entire composition.  It can’t be too busy or too sterile.  It needs to be like the temperature of Goldilocks porridge, “just right”.

Gear used in this post: Pentax K5IIs camera, Pentax 17-70/4 lens.

Editing Tools used in this post: Adobe CC2015, Nik Collection, Pixel Genius Photokit, Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet, Pantone Huey Pro


Three Roses

On a morning walk after an overnight rain, I found these next to neighborhood mailboxes.

A gray, over cast day with its soft, diffuse light makes an easy exposure.  My eight year old Tamron 28-75/2.8 lens lets me focus as close as 12″.  That’s 12″ to the film plane or sensor in the camera.  At that distance, wide open at f2.8  and zoomed out to 75mm. a Depth of Field Calculator said my DoF was .05″. At 16″, it was .1″ DoF.  I believe that because I had to back up a little, it was very thin to hand hold.

My intent was to just get an edge or a hint of focused color and rain and let the background go soft with high contrast, to isolate the single blossom from the background. The mulch & mailbox posts share none of the elegance of the roses.

These are really a sketchpad, serendipity.  More carefully made versions would involve a tripod, remote release and Mirror Lock Up with a multi second delay.  And maybe some lighting. This is the large news print pad, Conte crayon version but that’s where you learn to draw.

All images are top lit with soft diffuse light, low key and high contrast.   001 28-75 4768

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Butterflies, Bees and Flash

A Butterfly Bush by our front door attracts nectar seekers all summer.  Silver Skippers are omnipresent, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails arrive in mid July, plus the occasional Painted Lady and more I’ve missed.  I am attracted to them as they are to nectar.  I never tire of watching or photographing them, the images help me bear the short days and gray bare branches of winter.

Even though our summer days are mostly bright sunshine ( Sunny 16 Rule / EV15 at ISO 100 ) I like to add light with a handheld flash because I can control the light direction and consequently, show the character of something as I see it vs as found with the ambient light.

Light has 4 properties: Intensity, Color, Direction and Quality (Hard or Soft). Direction is the property I most care about because it determines how we see form.

Image 1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, below is an example.  Balancing ambient  light  with my flash power setting, I held the camera in one hand and flash in the other,  extended as far as I could reach and pointed at the butterfly, from camera left.  The flash light raked across the butterfly from the side, creating shadows from the texture of her wings.  We get to see what the surface of the wings look like and the scaly texture so important for their ability to shed water and still fly. Shadows define her form, the same as any portrait.  It is a she, males don’t have blue spots.

  1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – Side lit with flash, hard light, high contrast Tiger Wings

Since my aperture is a stop or two below the ambient exposure, the background goes darker, further increasing contrast.  Compare that to the next image, 2. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.  It’s a properly exposed, ambient light image. Images 1 and 2 have very different characters and impacts, accomplished simply by changing the aperture setting and adding a bit of light from the side.   And I didn’t have to wait for the butterfly to be in the right spot at the right time.

2. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail: Ambient, front lit, soft light, low contrast  003 Swallowtails 0419

Image 3. Painted Lady was taken within a few minutes of 1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.  The difference is the light direction, now pointed from the front and a little below.  Without the side light, there are no shadows to show texture.  The  patterns and colors of the wings are well lit and the contrast with the darker background is maintained.

3. Painted Lady: Front lit with flash, hard light, high contrast 002 31 July 2625

Sunday was a rare overcast day, what some photographers call God’s Softbox. The ambient light was mostly directionless ( there’s a half stop difference you can use if you know where the sun is behind the clouds) and soft, so low contrast and very little shadow.  A very safe day for Auto mode.  Not being satisfied with an ambient exposure, I again used a handheld flash, this time with a snoot to get even higher contrast with the ambient light and background.

Large and colorful butterflies get all the attention but they were in short supply today. Those I saw were really ragged with large pieces of wings missing.  Skippers are always around and are more tolerant of my flash. Image 4. Silver Skipper is an example of how you can turn a grey, flat light day into something more interesting.   Same setup, camera in one hand, flash in the other, this time with aperture farther below ambient, 2 to 3 stops.

We again get to see the Skipper, its scaly texture and shape.  The shadows create contrast, revealing form.  The flash illuminates the butterfly but not the background, courtesy of the Inverse Square Law.  The light simply falls off before it can be reflected from the back ground.  Our small aperture of f16 renders the ambient dark, dramatically increasing the contrast between figure (butterfly) and ground ( background). Imagine the background “properly exposed” and much lighter.  The contrast and impact are gone.

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4. Silver Skipper: Side lit with flash, hard light, high contrast I used a 28-75mm lens with a 12″ minimum focus distance. Adding a 1.5X Teleconvertor ,  my minimum focus distance stayed at 12″ but my focal length became 42-112mm, easier for getting close to small butterflies. It also helps in making the subject as large as possible in the frame for the best possible resolution. It’s not true macro, a 1:1 image, but it’s gets close.

A workable Depth of Field requires a small aperture so I stopped down to f16.  The DoF calculator showed me that at 111mm focal length and minimum focus distance, f16 gave me about 3/16ths”.  At f8, the calculator showed DoF of 1/16″, not something I could use handheld.  Macro photographers know the problem well, which is why they use tripods.  I have a tripod but it wouldn’t work here as butterflies tend not to wait around for tripod setup.

Looking at small butterflies, I found Image 4. Carpenter Bee, who was very engaged in his work and completely tolerant of my flash. He cared nothing for my work.

4. Carpenter Bee: Side lit with flash, hard light, high contrast 002 28-75 + TC + flash 4638

Photo gear used in this post: Pentax K5IIs camera, Tamron 28-75/2.8 lens,  Kenko 1.5x TC, YN603N II Wireless Trigger, YN 560III Flash, Rogue Imaging Small Flash Bender.

Editing Tools used in this post: Adobe CC2015, Nik Collection, Pixel Genius Photokit, Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet, Pantone Huey Pro

1 Dragonfly, 2 Lenses, 4 Camera Positions

I’ve been wanting to write about photography but had no outlet until I reworked this old blog last week. Selfishly, I’ve found that when I teach, I learn and discover far more than my students.

Taking out the kitchen trash, I saw a Dragonfly on the dried stalk of an Iris blossom.  It flew when I got close but quickly returned.  With such a willing model, I couldn’t pass up an impromptu portrait session.

001 Dragon Fly 4498

These first two images were made with my workhorse 17-70mm lens that will focus at 12″.  It’s relatively wide angle of view means these are cropped down to about 30% of the recorded image.  Okay for a 5×7 or 8×10 but if I wanted to make a large print, it would be a limiting factor

002 Dragon Fly 4519

The last two images were made with an old consumer grade 70-210mm lens that has a minimum focus distance of about 3 feet.  It fills the frame at 180mm focal length.The slight crop makes a large print much easier to make.  The lens was stopped down to f8 so at 3ft and 180MM, my Depth of Field was only 1/4″.  No problem isolating the subject from background.

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You could do this with just about any consumer grade 50-200 zoom. Put the camera in Aperture or Manual Mode and stop down the lens to f8 while shooting near the maximum zoom of the lens.  Its easy to calculate ahead of time with this Depth of Field Calculator  or a DoF Calculator app on a SmartPhone.

Folks new to photography tend to not allow themselves to see or explore the possibilities of a composition. These images are different primarily because I moved the camera, especially aware of the background.  That let me change the “key” (low, medium, high) and therefore the mood of each image,  like a human portrait session.

The ambient light stayed the same, the model stayed the same but the photographer moved, exploring all the possibilities of the scene.

Some backgrounds didn’t work, like half sun and half shade or a light tree trunk dividing the frame. I moved until I had something that worked.  Being aware of backgrounds is essential for good composition.

All exposures were manual, the only way I know how to shoot.  I forgot to check settings when I changed lenses  so my first exposure afterwards was 1 stop underexposed and my shutter speed was too slow.  The underexposure was easily recoverable at ISO100 when shooting RAW, in my case DNGs.

In camera stabilization saved me from my shutter speed ( 1/125th sec ) being too slow for my focal length.  Figure at least 1/200sec or the reciprocal of the focal length ( 180mm) as these were handheld.  I believe that’s a good rule of thumb even with in-lens or in-body stabilization.  If you’re on a tripod, its a different story and future post.

I could’ve simply started with the longer lens but I wanted to see what I could do with the other.  One of the key benefits of digital is being able to quickly try things and get immediate feedback.  Its important to know what doesn’t work and why. And sometimes you get surprised. When in doubt, try it.

And don’t forget to take out the trash.