Archive for category Photography

Diving into Lighting & Portraiture

Posted by on Sunday, 11 April, 2010

OK, so I really love photography. I loved it as a child, and as a teenager I loved my high school photography class. We learned to shoot with simple full-manual SLR cameras and then develop black and white film in darkrooms. I even had a darkroom in my parents’ basement. Somehow I “lost” the hobby for twenty years, and only came back to it in my 30′s when I suddenly felt compelled to take decent pictures of my toddling kids. From there, it’s been back down the slippery slope; the basic theory hasn’t changed and all the math-y algorithms still work for me, but now the equipment is just way more fun!

In retrospect, one of the reasons this hobby works so well for me is that I can seamlessly incorporate it into my daily life with kids; the camera comes with on trips, walks to the park, etc. My former pseudocareer — composing music for theater — required hours of unbroken solitude in the music studio. Until my kids get (much) older, I don’t have that level of free time anymore. So I’ve gravitated toward another hobby that dances around the delicious conflict between art and science (exactly as music composition does): you can’t do photography well without really understanding the science and tech, but it’s also worthless without some sort of passion/vision to inspire your creations. The challenge is to balance these two.

So as a birthday present from Frances, I signed up for a one day, 7 hour class on “Lighting and Portraiture” at the local Calumet store in Chicago. Here was a chance to learn a touch more science, and a whole lot more artistic technique around portraiture, which is where my main interest lies. The class was taught by Bill Skinner, a guy with 25 years of insane wedding-photography experience and a sense of humor to prove it. He’s one step away from a standup comic, a great teacher who listens and really makes sure people are following him. I enjoyed him so much that I may sign up for his repeating classes. If you live in Chicago and want to learn photography, TAKE THIS CLASS!

Bill had two basic theses for his class:

  1. If you’re serious about photography, you need to be thinking about light all the time. You need to be aware of it, shape it, sculpt it, and make it a deliberate part of your composition process. Photography is about painting light, and so you need to think of light as your main medium, not something that accidentally happens.
  2. Modern cameras and flashes make automatic guesses about everything: color balance, proper exposure, focus. For any random scenario in which you click the shutter, it makes these guesses accurately about 80% of the time. That may be fine if you’re throwing spaghetti at the wall (taking hundreds of near-identical photos) and you’re using trial and error to see what “sticks”. But serious photography is about remaining in control of all the variables, not throwing the dice and hoping it usually works. You should get exactly what you want 100% of the time by NOT TRUSTING the camera and making these decisions on your own, for each and every picture you take. Just as a painter doesn’t use brushes that are “close” and hope for the best, and a photographer doesn’t trust a machine to make close guesses on his/her behalf. Be in control.

We spent a while talking about color temperatures, quality and quantity of light, and how to control flashes properly. We learned about reflective vs. incident metering. We learned about different tools for manipulating light, and we even had a model show up for live demos. Bill started by taking us outside and showing us the model’s face under direct, harsh sunlight. Definitely a case of “raccoon eyes”:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Then he held a nice diffuser-disc over her head to demonstrate how much better it was with the light spread out over her face:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

We then went to shady areas, which gave us the same diffuse light. And practiced reflecting light from the disc back up into her face:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class
From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Though my favorite was using the gold reflector. When combined with the warm background, it really made her skin-tone glow:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

And then a shot from the side, in partial sun and shade. Proof that with a light meter, you can properly expose someone even when they’re mostly backlit:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Then we went indoors, where Bill demonstrated oodles of fancy lighting equipment (“monolights” and various hood attachments.) I especially liked the affect of partially lighting her face, but then shooting a narrow beam against the back of her head, just to light up her left cheek:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

And here’s an example of simulated cloudy window light, using a “soft box”:

From Lighting and Portraiture Class

Finally, we talked about the four different ways of lighting a face. Woo, new vocabulary!

Split lighting: half of face is light, half is dark.
Rembrandt lighting: light is 45 degrees both above and to the side of the face, causing the signature triangle of light underneath the darker eye.
Loop lighting: Light is 30 degrees both above and to the side of the face, allowing light to break into the darker half, in a loop around the mouth.
Butterfly lighting: Light is straight into face from above.

We also talked quite a bit about which angle to shoot a face from: “broad” means to shoot mainly the lit half of the face (to make the face seem larger/wider), and “short” is about shooting the darker side, which has a slimming effect. We spent quite a while talking about general body posing techniques too, and the various flattering effects they could have.

So aside from all this new knowledge about lighting tools, lighting positions, posing techniques, flash operations, here are the main behavioral takeaways for me:

  • I should stop trusting my camera’s light meter and use a real handheld light meter. Reflected light is not nearly as accurate as incidental light, and a real light meter doesn’t do stupid things like try to force every picture to be 18% gray on average, or accidentally meter the wrong part of the image.
  • I’m going to stop using a gray card to do color-balancing and use an ExpoDisc instead. Why? The ExpoDisc has two distinct advantages over the gray card: 1. While both techniques require me to take an extra color-calibration photo before I begin shooting, the ExpoDisc requires no further post-processing on the computer. 2. The gray card is reflected light, which can vary based on angle; the ExpoDisc reads the incidental light directly.
  • Instead of putting my flash on automatic, dialing a shutter speed and f-stop and hoping for the best, I’m going to use the flash on manual mode now. I know its Guidance Number now (140 at 50mm-zoom), so I can compute in my head exactly where I need to stand and how to set my f-stop to get the perfect flash exposure of the subject. I can set my shutter speed as an afterthought, depending on how much I want to expose the background. (At last, I have a 3-bits” explanation of how to remain in total control of a flash!)

Bill says he’s going to be offering a followup course where we get to do some hands-on practicing of these techniques. That should be really fun.

The Year in Portraits

Posted by on Sunday, 6 December, 2009

I’ve been getting increasingly more serious about photography over the last two years, and I’m not just talking about the expense of my equipment. :-) I’ve started reading photography books and blogs, and have gradually discovered I have real passion for portraiture. Perhaps it’s just a new outlet for creativity (since it’s been essentially impossible to write theater music since the kids were born)… but I also harbor a secret fantasy of becoming professional someday, perhaps when I retire.

In any case, I went through the last year (or two years, really), and pulled out my favorite portraits into a single album. I’ve organized them into roughly four categories: pets, kids, family, and friends. I think you’ll enjoy this collection; there’s definitely an emergent style in there somewhere.

Click to view. I recommend choosing ‘slideshow’:

Favorite Portraits

Early review of Canon 5D Mark II

Posted by on Saturday, 7 November, 2009

I just upgraded from a Canon 30D DSLR to a 5D Mark II. Here are my preliminary thoughts after a day of use, as someone who’s never owned a full-frame DSLR before.

The first and most obvious thought I have is: what unbelievable clarity. It seems to come from a combination of a massive LCD on the back with 4x more resolution and seeing MUCH more of the world through the viewfinder. It’s like getting a new set of eyes — I had no idea all this stuff was out there. I also feel less removed from the scene, more immersed. Looking through the old 30D now feels like peering through a tunnel.

The next big shock is that my lenses are all different now. Not having the 1.6x zoom factor is a big deal. I used to have a 30mm prime (effective 48mm), but usually rely on my 24-70mm lens as my main “walk around lens”, because it was effectively 38-112mm. Now my 24-70 is *really* 24-70, and it’s amazing to see how truly wide-angle 24mm really is. I even get a bit of moving-fisheye effect. Considering I have very little interest in landscape photography (and mostly focus on portraits), the whole 24-50mm range isn’t very interesting to me. I find myself either using the ‘nifty 50′ for simple creative stuff, or using my 70-200 as the walk-around lens. What a shift!

A scary thing is that RAW file size has gone from from ~8MB to ~24MB. It’s no longer painless to access my photos over a NAS drive via 802.11N wi-fi. I’m clearly going to have to move the whole photo library to a ‘miniature’ 500GB disk plugged directly into USB, and then be sure to back up this disk alongside my NAS disk.

There’s a nice bevy of UI improvements. It’s clear that Canon knows their target audience is professional photographers, since the cheesy “automatic modes” (portrait, sports, landscape, etc.) are gone from the dial. Fair enough. But I’m baffled as to why they added a dedicated button on the back to flip “picture modes”, which are modes that strategically modify the hues and saturations of photos as you take them. Does anyone actually use them, even in older generations of this camera? Everyone I’ve ever met turns off the feature altogether (selects ‘neutral’ or ‘faithful’ modes). We all adjust the colors in post-production anyway. The whole feature smells of the automatic modes they’ve already nixed.

The two party tricks of this DSLR are the live-view feature (just like point-n-shoot cameras) and the ability to record HD 1080p video at 30 frames/sec. Pretty impressive stuff. I doubt I’ll ever use the live view mode, and I’ve not quite figured out how to shoot video well. Of course, when 3 minutes of video takes up a whole gigabyte of space, I’m going to be conservative with it!

But still, if somebody said, “hey, your DSLR now has live-view mode on its rear LCD”, what would you expect the interface to be? Just a button that flips it on and off, right? Sure. What else would it possibly be? Hmmm. There’s definitely a dedicated button to activate the feature, but pushing the button seems to convert the camera into an entirely different beast. Suddenly controls don’t work the same, you have to choose one of three alien autofocusing modes (including one which does continuous facial recognition!). Making it autofocus actually momentarily *interrupts* the live view. Everything seems weird, and even weirder when shooting video. I’ve still not figured out how to make it continuously autofocus during video recording — maybe it’s not possible at all. I need to study the manual more. (But the video quality is VERY impressive nonetheless. One less gadget to carry on outings with kids!)

Overall, I’m amazed. But as with any new tool, I’ve got a lot of learning to do.

Things to be thankful for

Posted by on Monday, 24 November, 2008

The great thing about being an amateur photographer is that every thousand photos or so, you get a winner. Here are my two sons.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Posted by on Sunday, 6 July, 2008

I’m done with a nice 12-day vacation. I was definitely on the verge of burning out; unproductive at the office and cranky at home all the time. I really needed to step back and forget about computers for a while.

What I did instead:

  • Went on a family vacation to Dubuque, Iowa, a mere 3 hour drive from Chicago.
    • Stayed in a hotel-waterpark with wife and 2 year old. Waterpark every day.
    • Horse-carriage rides.
    • Mississippi paddleboat rides.
    • Mississippi Aquarium Museum.
    • Lots of ice cream.
  • Finally finished reading Watership Down.
  • Started reading The Compassionate Carnivore, which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that I’m not alone in being a freerange-itarian.
  • Read the through the new 4th edition D&D Player’s Handbook. I’m a geek. I like roleplaying games. Sue me.
  • Went to the Indiana Dunes — at a friend’s house — for the 4th of July.
  • Went to the Bristol Renaissance Faire
  • Shot 300 photos. A few of them were pretty good.
  • Beta-tested an excellent new text-adventure game written by a friend; it should be available to the public by August 1st.
  • Played my banjo at the usual Friday night jam.

Time to go back to Google; I’m continuing to lead a team whose goal is to make Google Code’s Subversion service as fast and scalable as possible.

Obligatory Whiny Post

Posted by on Wednesday, 7 March, 2007

I know that I usually blog about things that excite me, but it just wouldn’t be a blog if there weren’t some sort of rant every now and then, right?

Let me vent about some miscellaneous pet peeves.

  • Digital photo albums:

    I love getting invitations to view friends’ online photo albums as much as the next guy, but it really annoys me when I go to the site and see 100 photos that are clearly nothing more than a thoughtless dump of someone’s digital camera. I don’t want to see blurry photos. I don’t want to see 12 pictures in row that are 99% identical. It’s called a photo album, folks. You know, an album? Like, choose the good photos and put them in a book on your coffee table? Don’t waste my time by making me comb through your ugly contact sheet while trying to spot an interesting photo. Please, put some thought into what you display!

  • Notice people around you:

    Pay attention to your surroundings when in public places; it’s not the place to be self-absorbed — you can do that at home. Don’t block the aisle with your cart in the grocery store while you browse a shelf. If you’re going to stand on the escalator, move to the right so others can pass. (I don’t care if it’s you first time on the subway, notice that everyone around you is standing on the right, climbing on the left? Pay attention to the convention!) When boarding a train, let people off the train before trying to push your way in, you insensitive clod.

  • Learn how to ask for help:

    When asking for help with software in a public forum (like an email list, or chat room), provide complete information. It’s useless to say, “I’m trying to do [general vague task], and I’m seeing an error message that says [some vague recounting of error text]. What is wrong?” It then becomes a game of 20 questions. Those of us trying to help have to repeatedly pull information from you: what exactly did you type? what exactly did you see as output? how did you configure things? Please don’t make us play this game. We can’t read your mind, and it’s a waste of time to have us repeatedly interrogate. Instead, gather up all of the information that describes your environment and what you’ve done, and present it all up front when you ask for help. We need to see literal transcripts of what you’re doing, not vague descriptions of the task.

Ooh, that’s raw.

Posted by on Sunday, 24 December, 2006

Ever since buying a Canon 30D last summer, I’ve been thrilled with the picture quality. My guilty admission, however, is that I’ve fallen down on the job of being a tech geek. I’ve barely read the manual, and only know how to make the camera do the most rudimentary things. I still use the camera in semi-automatic mode, whereby I choose an aperture (depth of field), and let the camera choose the shutter speed for me. Sometimes I follow up on the auto-focus with a bit of manual focus. Because I hate the built-in flash, in low-light situations I set the ISO to 800 or 1000 and then open up to f/2 or so. I also manually choose the white balance… but that’s about it.

This week, visiting inlaws in North Carolina, I had some downtime to really look at the camera again. I ended up buying a nice book which is both a introduction to photographic techniques in general, and a hands-on tour of my specific camera. I’m pretty happy with it.

Keep in mind, I’m not a complete photography newbie. I took a photography class in high school, and did lots of black & white shooting on an old 1980 Pentax ME-Super with an f/1.4 lens. I had to set the aperture and shutter speed manually, and the most the camera would do is blink a little LED light-meter at me, to tell me if I was over- or under-exposing. I wish the class had taught me something about the artistic side of photography (like theory of composition), but instead I spent the whole semester learning how to develop black & white film by hand, getting covered with smelly chemicals.

Anyway, my new book inspired me to do two crazy things: (1) turn on my camera’s auto-exposure bracketing feature, and (2) stop recording huge JPEG files, and switch to RAW files instead.

The auto-bracketing thing is neat. I push my button and get three pictures instead of one. I’m not sure I’m going to use it all the time… but I can see that if I’m really worried about getting a good photo, it’s a nice form of insurance.

The RAW file thing has left many impressions on me. First, I noticed that the camera displays the picture on its LCD faster, presumably because it’s not trying to do JPEG compression. Second, I noticed that the files are 9MB each, instead of 3MB. Yikes. Next, I’m hugely impressed with OS X: it just natively understands Canon’s raw (.CR2) format. I double-click on a file, and Preview.app displays it without fuss. (Alas, when I try to import my 30 .CR2 files into iPhoto, a few get in, but then the whole app crashes.) Finally, there is definitely a quality difference between JPEG and RAW. It’s immediately obvious when I open the photo, and especially obvious when I start zooming. No artifacts, no blurs anywhere. I’m sold!

I guess my next project is to actually learn to do something with RAW files. I don’t own Photoshop, so I gotta find some free (or Free) software to play with white balance, color temperature, and so on. I can’t see color very well, so this could get… interesting.

Sleeping Like a Baby

Posted by on Sunday, 3 December, 2006

Toddlers sleep anywhere. I’m always amazed. Here are some low-res photos from my phone.

In the car:

In the store:

In the shopping cart!

New Camera

Posted by on Wednesday, 14 June, 2006

So I have to admit… like every new parent, we’ve been videotaping the baby and taking lots of digital photos. Our main audience seems to be grandparents, who eagerly await uploads of grandson photos every few weeks. But after seeing the photos taken by my uncle and co-worker, I realized the gigantic difference between our 4-year-old, 2-megapixel digital camera and the “real” digital SLR cameras they were using. Holy moly.

So I couldn’t take it anymore, and bought a digital SLR last weekend… after a bunch of research, of course! The camera of choice was a Canon 30D, for a few reasons: first, my co-worker can give me tech support, since he’s a Canon user; second, Canon and Nikon seem to be in 3rd and 4th generation products, whereas other companies seem to have 1.0 products; third, my wife already owned a few Canon lenses from her analog camera, which are automatically compatible.

I’ve not used an SLR since I was in high school back in the mid-80′s. I owned an old Pentax ME Super (now on the cover of Autumn War’s Camera album), and it was almost totally manual. Manual focus, manual aperture. The most it could do was use its light meter to set the shutter speed. The best feature, though, was a fixed-length 50mm f/1.4 lens which let in a lot of light. It was the perfect camera for learning black & white photography. (In those days, I even had a darkroom in my parents’ basement!)

So this new Canon 30D is fascinating to me. It autofocuses for me if I want, which is nice. I can choose either aperture or shutter speed, and it will choose the other for me. Or, if I don’t want to think, it can do absolutely everything for me. What really blows my mind is the abliity to set the “virtual” ISO light sensitivity on the fly, as well as the exposure. This thing will do auto-exposure bracketing, and can even do rapid-fire photos for a moving subject. Point camera at wiggling baby, and bam, 25 photos taken in 5 seconds. One of them will look good, right? Hey, if you throw a bunch of spaghetti on the wall, something is gonna stick!

The only thing I was unhappy with was the zoom lens that ships with the camera. Yes, it’s a zoom lens, which is a nice thing, but it has a maximum aperture of f/3.5, which doesn’t cut it. I hate using a flash in low-light situations, and want the ability to do short depth-of-field photos. So at my co-worker’s recommendation, I bought a really basic lens just like the one on my old Pentax: 50mm f/1.8. My wife and I will just have to switch lenses. She can enjoy the zoom, and I can use my wide-aperture lens.

People have been asking me for photo samples, so here are a couple of early photos. The first photo ever taken, showing the boy attempting to eat some cat food. Later that day, he decided that mom’s toothbrush was in fact the most exciting toy ever, crawling all over the house with it in hand. He ultimately fell asleep on me, still clutching it.