Technique Tutorial: Color Correcting for Mixed Light


I was going to write a post griping about the lack of color correction gels for Paul Buff strobes (Alien Bees, Einsteins). Instead, I figured I’d show you how I came up with my own solution. Take a look at this picture:

Dining Room

The image was taken on “auto” white balance with a strobe fired through an umbrella. Take a close look at the colors. You’ll see some orange mixed with white. The orange light is the warm light coming from the incandescent bulbs. The “white” light is actually “blue” daylight coming from this open sliding glass door:

Living Room

The strobe matches the daylight color temperature and the camera reads it as white. In order to balance the colors, I need to match the light sources. The first thing I do is to close the sliding glass door and the curtains. This filters out any blue daylight leaving me with a single light source. My strobes, however, are still balanced for daylight. I can put a gel over my speedlight which I’ve blogged about here and here. But that won’t give me enough power to properly light the room. My Einstein is powerful enough, but as I mentioned above, the company doesn’t make color correction gels. They do have gels, just not color correcting ones.

(If you’re new to color correcting flash and you didn’t read the previous blogs I linked to above; here’s the primer: Light from a flash roughly matches daylight which is around 5600 degrees Kelvin. Incandescent lamps are warmer at around 2800-to-3600 degrees Kelvin. Putting an orange gel (Color Temperature Orange) on a flash turns it into an incandescent lamp.)

So I had to buy my own gels that would fit the Einstein. I went with a pack of LEE daylight-to-tungsten filters. The pack includes a range from a full cut of CTO down to 1/8. They are big enough to cover the 7-inch reflector but there’s no way to attach the gel to it. I could buy clips, but I would pay more in shipping than the things cost. So I just use two small binder clips.

Einstein Strobe with gel

Here you see the set-up (notice the curtains are closed). It may not be elegant, but it works. If I want to use an umbrella, I would have to cut a hole in the gel. Usually, I’m close enough where I can hold it in front of the strobe or I just use the timer on the camera so I can run and hold the umbrella.

Now that my strobes (I’m also using a gelled speedlight) match the light source in the room, I just set my camera’s white balance to tungsten and take the shot.

Dining Room Color Corrected

If you’ll notice, this image just seems more balanced. All the light in the room is roughly the same color temperature. One of the biggest challenges I face shooting interiors is shooting in mixed light. Having the right tools can make all the difference.

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Technique Tutorial: Photographing and Editing a Bathroom


Bathroom
I hate shooting bathrooms. It is one of the most challenging scenarios I face when shooting interiors. Mostly because of the darn mirrors; I have to figure out how to shoot it without catching my reflection.

When I shoot, I try to give the image context by showing a room in relation to its surroundings. The image above, for example, is a master bathroom in a condo. So I always try to show the room it belongs to in the reflection in the mirror. This gives you a sense of space and lets you know that you can access the bathroom from that bedroom. Easier said than done.

The first step is to get an exposure for the room reflected in the mirror.  If I shoot to expose for the bathroom, the reflection will be overblown and you won’t see detail in the mirror. You can see from the reflection in the shower door that I am holding a flash “Statue-of-Liberty-like” and bouncing it off the ceiling. I also have a strobe in the room to provide the light in there.

Now I want to expose for the bathroom. There’s one problem, however, and that is white balance. I’ve written about white balance before and how you can use gels to correct for light sources. In this case, the bathroom is lit with incandescent  bulbs (warm light) and the light coming from the open door is daylight (cool light). To filter out any blue light, I just close the door. That doesn’t solve my problem, though. The light that comes from flashes is also daylight balanced. So I put a full cut of CTO (color temperature orange) on the flash and set my camera’s white balance to “tungsten” (incandescent for Nikon users). The difference is subtle, but I want to capture what I saw with my eyes and what I saw was the warm glow of the bulbs. But I still have my reflection on the shower door. One more exposure to correct for that:

Then it’s just a matter of masking in Photoshop. I use the first exposure for the room in the mirror and to correct for the overblown lights. I use the third exposure to get rid of my reflection. I then had to do some cloning to remove the reflection of the camera on the shower door. The end result is the image at the top of this post. Three shots for one bathroom. Did I mention how much I hate shooting bathrooms?

Why My Next Camera Will be Mirrorless: Part 1


Sony NEX-7

Sony NEX-7

I’ll admit I was a little late to the mirrorless party. I’d heard about Micro 4/3rds, EVIL, MILC, etc. and I was just too busy or too arrogant to pay attention. I figured anything with a small sensor wasn’t worth my time. In truth, my next camera will be the Canon 5D MKIII; I still need the full frame capabilities for my profession.

My interest in mirrorless cameras came from a desire for a system I can use for my personal use. I hate lugging around a big DSLR when traveling and a point-and-shoot or iPhone just doesn’t get me the quality I need. Enter mirrorless cameras: small form factor with a sensor larger than point-and shoots; in some cases just as large as a DSLR.

In case you’re new to this too, let me go over a few things. First, terminology:

  • Micro 4/3 (four-thirds) refers to the size of the sensor. Check out “Size Matters in Photography” for an explanation on sensor sizes.
  • “EVIL” stands for “Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens”. Most mirrorless cameras do not have an optical viewfinder, but an electronic one instead.
  • MILC stand for “Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera”.

In case you don’t know how a DSLR works, check out the diagram below:

DSLR Cross Section

Image from Vimeo Video School

When you look through the viewfinder, you can see through the lens because light bounces off a mirror which gets reflected off a prism and then through the viewfinder. When you click the shutter, the mirror flips up and light hits the sensor directly. This is why your viewfinder goes black when you press the shutter.

The prism inside a DSLR is also what makes it so bulky. The mirror is, of course, a moving part which fails after time. That’s why cameras are rated at certain “shutter actuations” or the number of shots you can take. Most are in the 50,000 to 150,000 range. Some high-end DSLRs are rated at 200,000 actuations.

So naturally, a mirrorless camera does not have a mirror or a prism which allows for a more compact body. It also means super fast frames per second, because there is no mirror that needs to flip up and reset before the next shot.

As I mentioned before, I am looking for something I can travel with that’s small enough to pack but that has DSLR-like quality. The guy who created the Instapaper App recently blogged about transitioning from DSLRs to an iPhone. When he wanted high-resolution images for his retina display he found the iPhone images just were not good enough. My first reaction was “did you really think the tiny sensor in an iPhone would give you quality good enough for a retina display?” My thoughts were echoed in this Cult of Mac article. But I also felt empathy.

On a recent trip to St. Thomas I decided not to bring my DSLR. I took pictures with my iPhone primarily so I could quickly share photos on Facebook. I also used a Canon Powershot 310HS when I wanted a little better quality. Below is an image from my iPhone 4S:

Charlotte Amalie Harbor

iPhone 4S:  f/2.4, 1/15, ISO 800.

I find the noise from the iPhone to be unacceptable, even in broad daylight at ISO 64.

St. John

iPhone 4S:  f/2.4, 1/3000, ISO 64

Look at all the noise in the sky. It’s only slightly better on the Powershot (granted it was at ISO 1600).

St. Thomas

Powershot 310HS:  f/3.2, 1/8, ISO 1600

It all has to do with the size of the sensor. A bigger sensor, among other things, will allow for less noise (up to a point). The Sony NEX-7 (pictured at the top of this post) has a 24-megapixel APS-C sized sensor; the same size found on most consumer Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

I really believe we are at a point where the market is going in three directions: One is DSLRs, the other is small cameras with larger sensors. Everything else is taken by camera phones because they are so accessible. But anyone who wants quality photos will fall in one or both of the other camps. Check out this blog post about a CNBC reporter forecasting the death of point-and-shoots.

The New York Times recently reviewed the new Sony RX100 and David Pouge raved about the 1-inch sensor on a tiny body. Some of the comments and even a blog attacked him for his praise; but they miss the point. What Pouge is saying is that a sensor that big on a camera small enough to fit in your pocket is going to rival other point-and-shoots with smaller sensors.

Now, mind you, you can’t fit most mirrorless cameras in your pocket due to the size of the lenses. But that’s something I like: big sensor, big lens, small body. Small and light enough for me to pack on a trip.

I credit well-known photographer Trey Ratcliff for enlightening me to the possibilities of mirrorless cameras. He makes a very good case in his “DLSRs Are a Dying Breed” blog post. Definitely worth a read.

You have a lot of choices when it comes to mirrorless cameras; from Olympus to Sony and even Nikon. Fuji made a big splash with its X100 and X10. Now, Canon is rumored to introduce a mirrorless later this month. Some have interchangeable lenses and others do not. The sensor sizes also vary, so you’ll have to do some research.

For a good primer on mirrorless cameras, check out this guide by Neo Camera.

So if you’re looking for a camera that’s small enough to carry around but will still deliver DSLR-like quality, I suggest you take a look at mirrorless cameras. It’s what I’ll be carrying on my next trip.

You can read Part 2 of this blog by clicking here

Photographing Fireworks this 4th of July


Fireworks

It’s that time of year again to practice your fireworks photography. I wrote a post last year with tips; you can read “how to photograph fireworks” here. I won’t rehash the topic, but I did want to add a few points.

First, if you have a point-and-shoot, you should have a “fireworks” setting. I can’t really vouch for it and I still wouldn’t trust it hand-held; but it’s worth a shot.

Secondly, I said that your lens should “go to infinity” on its own. If you don’t know what that means and you have your lens on auto focus, your lens may try to hunt for focus in low light conditions. If it can’t find an area of contrast, it won’t be able to lock focus. Bright fireworks against a dark sky should do the trick, but if your focusing distance is off, your results may not be as sharp as it could be. So here’s what you do. Look at your lens and you should see a focus window:

Lens focus window

The window tells you how much of your image will be in focus in meters and in feet. In the image above, for example, you can see the lens is set to infinity. That means anything from the lens to infinity will be in focus. If it had been at 3-meters; only anything up to 10-feet would be in focus. So the best bet is to set your lens to manual focus and set the focusing distance to infinity. Just don’t forget to switch it back to auto focus before your next shoot.

One last tip: Try to give your fireworks images some context. The shot at the top of this post and last year’s just show fireworks in the night sky. This year, I am going to try to show the fireworks in relation to the surroundings. If you can find some building or landmark to put in the foreground or bottom part of your image, it will help convey more information.

Good luck and Happy 4th of July!

[UPDATE: I just shot some fireworks this evening and my shutter speed was between 15-to-30 seconds. I think this is because I zoomed out to show some context. In the past I zoomed in on the fireworks like the image above so it didn’t matter if the sky goes black. As you can see in the image below, it was still twilight and I didn’t want the sky to go black.]

Baldwin Park Fireworks

Thinking Differently About Composition


Bedroom

I don’t remember if it was David Hobby (Strobist) or Joe McNally who said that when they were shooting for newspapers, they would always use the same lighting technique: camera in right hand, flash in left hand. That led to the same lighting pattern over and over again. So it took some thought to begin setting up a light on the right hand side of a subject.

It’s kind of like that for composition, I think. If you are used to doing one technique; be it lighting, shooting or editing, you fall into a routine. This  isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can lead a beginning photographer to discover their style. But it’s also a good exercise to break out of your routine and try something new.

Not too long ago, I was hired to shoot a couple of houses. I thought it would be a standard shoot until I arrived at the first house. The client said he was looking for something more creative; not necessarily showing the whole room. It turned out to be a fun and challenging shoot because I had to approach each shot in a different mind frame.

Foyer

The shot above, for example, is not one I would have normally taken; but I rather like the compositional elements. The homeowner specifically mentioned the sculpture on the right. On the left, the pattern and vertical lines of the wrought iron door anchor the image. In the middle distance, you can see a sitting area and the dining area in the background adds depth.

A front door and staircase

At the second house, the client wanted to emphasize the detail work above the doorway. I didn’t want to just take a picture of the door, so I thought I’d make it interesting by showing the spiral staircase. The dramatic curve plays nicely against the horizontal and vertical lines outside.

Staircase

In this last image, I think the angle of the staircase leads the viewer’s eye to the living area. The vertical line of the wall makes a good dividing point between the left and right side of the image.

Obviously all these examples are of interiors and architecture. If you are a wedding or portrait photographer, you might try using negative space. Or use the environment around your subject to frame them. The point is, break out of your comfort zone. It’s going to take a little forethought before you even look through the viewfinder, but you might be pleasantly surprised at the result.

Shoot the 2012 Supermoon…now with 15% more moony-ness!


The Super Moon

Super Moon on 3/19/11. (f/11, ISO200, 1/90th @ 200mm)

I checked my blog stats and noticed that searches and hits to a post I wrote last year about photographing the super moon were exploding. I couldn’t figure out why until I heard on the news tonight that the super moon is coming back this Saturday. This year’s super moon is supposed to be even bigger than last years! The news report said the moon will appear about 30% larger than normal. Last year it was 10%-to-15%. If you want to geek out on why that is, check out this science-y article.

In the meantime, feel free to re-visit last year’s post. The same principles apply.

Why Photographers Need Liability Insurance


Article in NY Daily News

In a recent post, I glossed over liability insurance. Well here’s a good example of why a photographer might need it. A photographer taking pictures of a client’s art work allegedly moved an ancient statue to take advantage of the light. It seems the statue was placed on uneven wood floor and toppled over. The piece was valued at $300,000 and the owner is suing. In this case the photographer was working for an art magazine which says they have no liability.

You can read more on the story HERE.

Now imagine you are a wedding photographer and at the reception you accidentally knock over a priceless piece of art or break a piece of furniture. Do you have thousands or tens-of-thousands of dollars to pay for it? I know some reception halls require photographers to carry liability insurance. Not all photographers need it; but if you shoot on location (weddings, events, corporate settings, commercial clients, etc.) then it’s something worth looking into.