19 Mar 2016

On looking for inspirations outside photography

I have experienced already several times the situation that my adventure with photography was kind a stuck. Somehow the energy wasn't there.
Internet is full of the similar stories with tons of advices on how to get out of there. I have tried quite a lot of them and they helped. So I could move on and continue to enjoy photography.
But there are another aspects of "moving on" with photography. For instance - set a new direction, try completely new genre, abandon some techniques in favor of the new ones.
I think that it is more difficult to start such movement since it often requires an inspiration from the outside world - something that opens the new perspective.
I don't think there is a general receipt about how to find something inspirational, but I can tell what worked and works for me very well. It is a dialogue between a writer and a photographer.
A friend of mine is a writer and she publishes regularly on the internet. Once she came to an idea of illustrating her stories with my photos. I liked it very much so I started contributing to her blog. From the photographer point of view it is a very enriching experience. After reading her texts I had to look at my pictures in a very different way - taking not only technical aspects of the photos, but foremost the much less obvious elements, like symbols, items that on one side match the story but on the other are not too obvious.
This caused me to start thinking about my photos again. Sometimes when I couldn't find anything good I took a camera and made a completely new picture.
What can be more inspiring?
Well, it turns out that such dialogue has also other part, originating from a photo. Sometimes my photos inspired her to write a new story. Which to me means that at least some of my photos probably contain something more than an illustration or snapshot of reality. Again, this forces me to think about the photography in a new way. Looks like adding a new dimension to my photographic journey.

Speaking about journey - we continue this exciting dialogue between writer and photographer but we'll try slightly different form. From now on I'll be publishing my photos on a separate site: The Quest Never Stops. I am looking forward to it.

21 Jan 2016

From a regular snapshot to a decent one

Recently I was enjoying a party together with a group of friends. And there was a moment when they asked for the photos. It was evening, in a quite dark room, so there was not much options for lighting: I had to use flash or I had to crank the ISO up to 6400. So I have chosen for flash.

I started with one flash with omnibouncer, placed on the camera, directed 45 degrees towards the ceiling. iTTL mode did the job well, the only thing I had to do was to reduce the flash power by 1,5 stop, to balance a little bit with the background lighting. The result was, well, as expected:

The faces are well exposed, but the effect is rather disappointing: the scene is flat, shadows on the faces rather uniteresting.
But then I saw the possibilities to redo the scene with another lighting setup. Since I had 2 flash lights I decided to place them in the room according to the scheme shown below:

The light sources were SB-900 and SB-910 speedlight flashes, with omnibouncers, directed 45 degrees towards the ceiling, slightly above the model, both in the iTTL remote mode. They were triggered by the built-in flash of my camera. As previously, I adjusted the power of the flash by -1,5 stops - to show a little bit more background. I knew that the photo would be slightly underexposed, but I would be able to easily correct it in the post processing. The result was (in my opinion) much better:

Now I have separated the model from the background (look at the left shoulder of her and the top of the hair). Next to that, thanks to the light source on the left side of the camera I got the interesting shadow on her face, giving much more shape to it than on the first photo.
Of course, there is still a dozen of things to be improved (composition, background, white balance of the flash, just to mention some) - it is still a snapshot, after all.
But the learning is that it is always worth trying something else than on the camera flash. The setup cost me about 5 minutes but opened plenty of new possibilities of exposing the scene.

18 Jun 2015

Taking photos of groups of children - some tips and observations

Recently I had an assignment to take photos of the several school classes. The final 'product' were the standard group photos of school classes:

Although it looks simple, there are some aspects and potential challenges that require at least some attention.

The location and lighting

Choosing the right spot for a shoot is not trivial, especially when the only available location is a school playground: a lot of open space with the school building as the background. Not very exiting, I'd say. Additional problem was the full sun at this day which would guarantee harsh shadows on the faces of the children. Luckily, at the border of the playground there were some trees that gave enough shadow to cover the whole group. Shadow coming from the tree provided decent light for the shoot: diffused on one side, but bright enough to be able to shoot with the 1/100s, f/7.1 and ISO 200.
Last but not least, the trees served as a nice background for the photo. My setup looked as shown in the picture below:

The bench in the shadow was the main 'stage', while the camera was about 10-15 meters away, put on a tripod (right in the picture) The lens used was 200 mm lens, set to about 135 mm. This focal length was good enough to compress the foreground with the background a bit.

The background was not perfect though. There were still some distracting elements there (like the fence and the bright part of the building's roof. 

This was the moment of a trade off: lighting wise it was the best spot I could get, so I was pretty sure that the most important objects on the photo (children's faces) would be properly lit. The distraction I could eliminate, at least partially by careful composition and doing some post processing.

 The last aspect to take care about was the color of light. Since the shadow was given by the trees, they could cause some color casting. To prepare for it I took several pictures of the color checker placed on the spot. I use X-Rite color checker for this purpose. X-Rite software integrates well with Lightroom  and makes creation of the color profiles quite easy.

The limited time

This is almost always the case at school: tight rhythm of the day: 45 minutes lesson, 10 minutes break, next lesson. So is the time of the photoshoot. Per group I had roughly 5 minutes time: to set up the group, to take 1-2 test photos, do some reshuffling of children, cherry up some of them, calm down most of them, take the final picture. 
Interesting observation is that teachers are not of much help in such situation: they are part of the group waiting for the directions. So it is important to have a plan and be ready to play the role of a 'director' of the shoot. 

Direction and communication with the group

First of all I have pictured in my head the end result. To play safe I applied the simple principles to make the process simple: most people read visual information from left to right and from top to bottom. Another basic principle was to ensure that all the faces are good visible and not covered by other children or other obstacles. Having all this in mind the direction was straightforward: I created 2 rows, ordered taller children to step on the bench, less tall ones to stay on the ground. Then (if required) I reshuffled them to ensure that the rows visually form more or less straight line. 
Again, it is the tradeoff, balancing the certainty of the final shot, the (limited) artistic values of the photo and limited time. 
Each time I was explaining the process at the very beginning: I have noticed that this way I can have children's attention for at least couple of minutes.
To enhance communication I decided to use the trigger cable for releasing the shutter. So I was able to stay next to my camera and have direct contact with the group. It worked well, especially when I had to give some extra directions. For example, it is pointless to say to the group: "and now move 0,5 meter to the left". Instead I was making a step aside asking them to do the same. It worked well.
For the final shot I explained that I will be counting till 5 before taking the shot and was showing the number with my hand. In fact I was taking the actual shot at "3" or "4". This simple trick ensured that they all watched at me (or rather my hand) and I could catch their eyes on the picture.

Watch out the equipment

This is very important, especially when one stays on the playground. The thing is that the children start run and don't watch at the obstacles. So it is absolutely necessary to stand by the tripod and mark your spot this way. Otherwise there is a risk that they tackle the gear. This happened to me some time ago when one of the children run against the light stand with attached flashlight and an umbrella. As a result thereof I had to buy a new umbrella.

27 Apr 2015

Tagging people in Lightroom CC (also Lightroom 6) - some tips

The newest version of Lightroom CC (Lightroom 6) comes with a number of new features. One of them is the automatic face recognition which enables tagging people on the photos. To me it is a very welcome enhancement of Lightroom since it makes possible to keep the records of photographed people in an easy way.
Last week I let Lightroom scan for the faces in my main catalog. It turned to be a long process. Granted, my main catalog contains over 80000 photos, so a number of faces there is substantial (more than 38000 and counting). And the process of finding faces runs for almost 4 days over all photos.

Finding faces is one thing, putting the names behind them is something else. The algorithms applied in Lightroom do the job quite well and after some time and tagging several names, the application starts recognizing similar faces. But the algorithm is not perfect and I have experienced quite some "missers" (faces that were recognized incorrectly).

So to speed up the whole process a bit I have developed simple workflow that is based on structural elimination of the photos scanned by Lightroom and  use of keyboard shortcuts.

Step number one: eliminate photos of unknown or people you are not interesting in

When looking for people, Lightroom tries to automatically attach the names to them based on the information gathered so far. If it cannot find any similar person the name is left empty and there is a '?' sign below the photo to indicate it. If the name is attached, Lightroom asks the user for confirmation, by displaying for each thumbnail the check- or cancel- mark for confirmation or cancelation, respectively. When the name suggested by Lightroom is wrong one can discard it or remove the particular thumbnail completely from the further analysis. By discarding the wrong name, the faces are returned back to the analysis and Lightroom tries to attach another name to them.
In case of the photos of unknown or unwanted people it is useful to remove them from further processing. So when I have a screen full of thumbnails, I first select all the photos I don't want to process further. Then I simply press Delete key. They are removed from the grid and are not processed by Lightroom. By repeating this step consecutively, the grid will be gradually filled with the faces I want to add to my database.

Step number two: Select the faces belonging to the same person, tag them in one step

Now I select all the faces that belong to the same person. Usual way of selecting is applicable here: by holding Shift and clicking on the thumbnails for continuous photos in the grid or by pressing Ctrl (Command) key and clicking on a single photo. It does not matter how the Lightroom categorized the face: with a guessed name or with a question mark. Once the photos are selected, I press the Shift-O key to edit the name I want to tag the faces with. This name will be applied to all selected photos.

Step number three: Repeat steps one and two until you are done

Some other tips

I have noticed that for large grids Lightroom has some troubles with rendering them, which slows the process down. So it is better to navigate somewhere to the smaller structure in the catalog (a collection, collection set or directory). If such set contains no more than couple of thousands faces, Lightroom renders them smooth.

25 Jan 2015

Dealing with limited lighting equipment - when choices have to be made

It happens every now and then to me: when setting up the lighting for shooting I realise that I would like to have more lighting to achieve the desired effect. Not so long ago I was shooting an event at school where my wife teaches. The event consisted of several parts: some performance on the stage and a mini-concert on a piano (standing off the stage, just in front of the audience)
For the light setup on the stage I wanted to use a well proven setup for boosting the stage lighting. But then I have realised that photographing the piano player will be difficult. I had not enough light equipment to serve both purposes. So I needed to make a choice with my setup: concentrate the lighting on the piano or on the stage.
To decide I looked at the rehearsal of both events. It turned out that the singers on the stage are individuals, so the stage lighting provided for their performance would be enough. To make a sharp, steady shot of them I would have to crank up the ISO settings to the 1600+ regions, but it is not a problem to my camera.
Then the lighting for the piano. I wanted to create some drama during the pianist's performance on one side and show a context of his concert on the other. And to put enough lighting on the player of course, to make him the most dominant element of the picture.

The drama was coming from the stage lighting (a high power tungsten reflector). The light for the pianist was delivered by the SB-900 flash light put inside the Lastolite softbox. To balance the color temperature of the flashlight with the stage lighting I put the full CTO gel in front of the flash light.
So the whole setup looked like that:

The softbox being the extra light source gave enough exposure on the back of the pianist and also provided additional light on the keyboard.

Another advantage of the extra light source was that the piano was better exposed while shooting from another angle. 

23 Dec 2014

Photographing a wedding - what could I have done better?

This is the last post of the series about my assignment I did some months ago. I have written about different aspects in part 1, part 2 and part 3. Today I will try to summarise most important improvement areas. Just to remember about them in the future.

Have a second shutter

Capturing all important events during the wedding is difficult, sometimes even not possible. I had one moment that I had to be at two places simultaneously. And I of course couldn't. After the ceremony, best man and best woman were signing the marriage certificates (which deserves a picture). At the same time the couple obtained best wishes from the priest. Being focused on the couple I had to skip the moment of putting the signature by the best woman. The second shutter would solve the problem easy. 

Mind the background. All the time

First plane is important. But the background can weaken (or even ruin) the picture. Just a few examples.

In the picture above there is everything in place on the first plane: beautiful woman, nice light, great moment of joy. But the background works distracting. It would have been better to move the camera just 40-50 centimeters left, and a little bit down. Just to have only one wall of the room as a background.

The above picture has a wooden frame on the left side that works distracting. Again, moving the people just a few centimeters to the right would solve the problem.

At last, an example of the great moment where a lot of joy and love is going on between the bride and groom. If only the fragment of the building wouldn't be captured... To be honest, that was just a first test shot to check the lights. And because I have noticed the cluttered background I could correct it in the latter shooting.
Note that to some extent those kind of mistakes can be corrected in the post processing. But it cost a lot of time and is not always possible.

Mind all the guests

While the wedding focuses on the bride, groom and their closest relatives, in my opinion it is important to capture also as much as possible material that will document the day in the future. For this occasion I have realised that I didn't put enough attention to the guests in the church. I simply didn't capture all of them! Luckily I had all the important persons in picture, but still - I could have done better.

Some technical challenges (and my solutions to them) experiences during photographing a wedding

It is time to catch up a bit with my notes on the photographic journey. In this post (being continuation of part 1 and part 2) I'll give some examples of the technical challenges I saw, together with my solution to them.

1. Low light, moody scene

That was one of my primary concerns. It's because the couple planned a very important moment during the ceremony that started with... complete darkness. Guests were standing in a room, handling small candles in their hands (not enlighten yet). The couple walked in a room with a candle and gave a light to each quest. So gradually the whole room become enlighten by a 'travelling candle light'. It was beautiful, very symbolic and powerful ceremony. And challenging to capture it right. To make it right I have taken some precautions:
- I ensured a right spot for shooting: by putting a small stair-ladder in the corner of the room I placed myself beyond the heads of other guests. So I ensured the clarity of view
- I ensured the full control about the exposure. Therefore I used a light meter in incident mode, before the ceremony started. I simply took a candle, put a light meter in the distance of 50-60 centimeters from it, directed the incident meter in the direction of the candle. Took a measure. This 50-60 centimeters was my estimation of the distance between a candle held by the couple in front of them and their faces. Measured exposure was the one I was intended to use. Then I put my camera in the manual mode with the settings given by the light meter. I liked the effect:

2.  Fast changing scenes

This is just given. While the ceremony in church is predictable, things at the reception might be surprising every now and then. And I had to be prepared. To deal with it I was walking with two cameras. One equipped with 24-70 mm lens, another with 70-200mm lens. Just to be able to cover as much as possible with the optical range. The disadvantage of such approach is weight to carry but at the end it paid off.

3. Unattractive light

Something to always take into account. I have used an extra light source, being speedlight flash which I placed on a monopod who was carried by my assistant. To trigger it I have used the radio triggers from PocketWizard (FlexTT-5 system for Nikon). I must say it worked very well. I practically didn't miss any shot. And I have much more flexibility in comparison to the iTTL system of Nikon.

4. Getting the right content for a photo album

This last one is on a boundary between technical and 'human-related' one. When taking the assignment I had the end product in mind, being a photo album (which was meant as a wedding gift for the couple). So I had to produce a content that fits well into such album. The thing was that the couple was not so keen on taking much of the extra effort to organise a separate session. To solve it I took an 'easy going' approach (betting that it would work): I suggested (without specifying a time frame) just a small walk during the ceremony to a location nearby the wedding venue. Luckily they didn't know that there was a nice, long pier going into the sea. So they got curious about the location and I had a few nice shots.