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Bonsai!

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Mnemonic, Josiah Wolf and Phantogram

Somehow I overlooked posting these photos from back in October. It was a good show, though I realized I’m basically too old to be staying up that late for an out-of-town concert. That same night, a few miles away, Liz Phair was playing a show. I briefly thought about trying to go to both, but with unknown start times and all there was no way of getting the timing down.

Mnemonic

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Josiah Wolf and Liz Hodson

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Phantogram

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In the meantime…

Obviously there’s been a lapse in updates, but that’s not to say there’s nothing new to share. The wedding gig has come and gone, as has the photography course I was taking in preparation for it. Most of my time in the next week will be spent processing the 300 or so images from the event (out of 850 images total), after which I will post the images from the rest of my course assignments. Overall my decision to take the class leading up to the job proved helpful, but the fair amount of self-study in the final weeks proved invaluable. Coming upon the on-camera flash work of Niel Van Niekerk (thanks Internets!) really upped the ante in terms of dealing with the wedding’s indoor, evening setting. Honestly, the images I took wouldn’t have been the same without his information and instruction. There’s more refining of the technique to do, but I feel there’s a nice foundation on which to build, and which should serve me well in a variety of situations.

So more to come, but in the meantime, allow me to distract you with this baby…

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Assignment Four

Taking a good photograph using an external flash can sometimes feel like starting to learn photography all over again, so it’s no surprise that many photographers feel intimidated by it (myself included). While using an external flash is straightforward – slide the thing on the camera, power it up and shoot – the results of the most basic use are usually disappointing, especially on people. It’s been compared to shining a flashlight directly in someone’s face, with all the unappealing qualities that that direct, harsh and unflattering quality of light brings. There are times when direct flash is fine, but generally speaking if the light can be redirected to a large surface, the resulting diffusion is more pleasing to the eye.

Assignment Four was another project involving a specific series of tasks – photograph someone using an external flash in various configurations: direct, bounced off the ceiling, bounced off a back wall and bounced off the floor. In my often-task-oriented brain I zeroed in on the tasks themselves with little thought about the aesthetics. So it took several attempts (and a patient dad) before I completed the assignment with photographs that were more than just test shots.

Direct Flash
Although not a “bad” photo, the light is a bit harsh and unforgiving.

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Ceiling Bounce
If I’m using flash, this is how I usually have the head aimed, so I feel fairly comfortable with it. Though bouncing the light off the ceiling spreads the light out, illumination is also from the top down, which can create undesirable shadows under the eyes. The typical remedy for this is to use a little white card attached to the flash head to throw some of the light forward. Doing this usually provides a bit of a catch light in the subject’s eyes, but can also throw a noticeable shadow behind the person if he’s standing close to a wall.

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Back Wall Bounce
This configuration was new to me, and now I’m not sure why I never tried it before. It probably can’t be used as often as the ceiling bounce, but is preferable given a choice between the two. With the flash aimed backward, the back wall becomes a giant front light source on the subject, which doesn’t create problems with under eye shadows.

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Side Wall Bounce
Bouncing light to the side wasn’t on the list of things to try, but it also has an appealing result. With light being more directional, it gives the sense the table lamp is contributing to much of the overall illumination.

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Floor Bounce
This one was definitely new to me and something I’ve never thought of doing. The sample shows the effect, but obviously it’s inappropriate for the subject. My instructor had a good suggestion about making the flash a supplemental light source, turning it into a bottom fill light or reflector. That is something I definitely want to try.

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My biggest take away from the assignment is that I need to be more adventurous with where to bounce the light. Side wall and back wall bounces produced the most appealing results in this session, two configurations I never used before.

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Assignment Three

Although I frequently see professional photographers working with two cameras, a practice which allows them to quickly switch between different focal lengths without having to bother with a physical lens swap, I have never gotten into this practice myself. I’ve always thought it required using two identical cameras for it to work smoothly, and given my current level of photography, I have no reason to own two DSLRs (plus there’s the expense). That’s not to say I don’t own more than one camera (albeit different makes and models), but I am usually using them one at a time, for different occasions, not interchangeably at the same event.

For Assignment Three, students were asked to use two cameras to photograph a couple as if in the final moments of a wedding ceremony, complete with the kiss and walk down the aisle. One camera was to have a telephoto lens attached, and the other a wide angle, facilitating the capture of moments that might be lost otherwise.

As expected, the primary challenge of the exercise was having to switch between cameras that differed in size, shape and operation. Although it was manageable, it did require a little time to become oriented after the switch; however, the difference was not significant enough that it defeated the entire purpose of the exercise. So more than likely I will use multiple cameras on an actual job, though I imagine only for times when I know I can’t afford to lose a moment to a lens change.

Since the assignment was more of an exercise to get used to the feel of using two cameras, I was able to have my subjects run through the kiss-and-walk scenario several times. It wasn’t until the last one that I started paying more attention to composition. Shooting down an aisle with a telephoto lens (in this case an 85mm) doesn’t offer many options, but I found moving off to one side to include a bit of foreground element created some depth that was lacking in the other shots.

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The early moments of the walk down the aisle were also captured with the telephoto lens. Although the one I submitted is a bit on the effusive side, I chose it because it fit the “great moments” theme of the assignment.

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My alternative would have been something more understated.

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I admit I wasn’t as comfortable using the other camera. I didn’t quite know when to switch over to it and the wider perspective made creating a strong image more challenging. But honestly, in the moment I didn’t have time to think about anything other than trying to capture the couple as they walked by.

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One thing I didn’t think about at the time was the deeper depth of field of the wide angle camera, because of the lens attached but also the camera’s specific format. In hindsight I could have gotten away with a larger aperture – on both the wide angle camera and the telephoto – to create more separation between the subjects and the background. Before I started the session I metered for a “safe” f/4.0 aperture and stuck with that throughout.

Overall this was a straightforward but enjoyable assignment, thanks in large part to my cooperative (and funny) friends Jake and Julie.

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Kiss the Bride; kick the Groom.

See the full set of photos.

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Assignment Two

One of the things I expected a photography class to do was reveal some of my shooting habits. I hesitate to call them “bad” habits, since I don’t believe the photographic choices one makes can be defined in such absolute terms. Whether a photograph works comes down to a host of factors and doing one thing might work great for one situation but be totally wrong for another. The trick is being able to discern the differences, not get mired in a particular method or way of seeing things, and be able to adapt to the situation.

When I first started taking photographs I relied a lot on my telephoto lens, mainly because as a shy person it allowed me to take pictures of people from a safe, comfortable distance. But I gradually got tired of that rather uniform look and the distanced psychological quality that long focal lengths imparted to my images. What I was even more unhappy with was my compulsion to stay in my comfort zone, effectively hiding behind a telephoto lens rather than taking a chance and getting close to my subjects. So I started working more with wide angle lenses, which forced me to move in close in order to fill the frame. The advice to “get close” (as famously described by combat photographer Robert Capa) is a good one, but as with most things moderation is also important. In the case of photographs of people, there are certain focal lengths that are more flattering to them; go too wide and you begin distorting features. In the last few years I think I have been more or less ignoring that fact, often sacrificing what’s traditionally pleasing for the inherent drama and unconventional effect of wider angle lenses. Again, I think it’s fine to use such lenses as the situations call for them, even with people. The problem comes when a photographer relies on them too much and the lens effect becomes the selling point of the photo rather than the subject itself.

For Assignment Two, the class was instructed to shoot a party with following in mind:

  • Make some fun and natural photos with a variety of lenses.
  • Be sure and try some funky things with the flash – bounce it off the wall, off the ceiling, heck, try the floor.

I think the first thing I missed was using a variety of lenses or focal lengths. I often stuck to the wider ranges, like 17mm and under, which my instructor cautioned me about because of the perspective distortion. He also made a good point about honing in on details to create a graphic image, which tends to be harder to do with wides because of their encompassing view. I think there were some nice details in the doughnut decorations that could have been nicely captured with a longer focal length.

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In the following the perspective distortion is kind of severe, and not necessarily the most flattering for subjects of the human variety. Mr. Gero suggested stepping back and using a focal length 22mm and above, which will minimize distortion and give a better overall perspective.

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While the wide angle was used more effectively in the next image, some refinement of the flash bounce angle would have remedied the light fall off on the far end of the room.

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The final image is the best of the group, though the original exposure was about 1.33 stops over. The flash was in TTL mode, so I’m not sure what threw it off so severely. I was able to compensate for a lot of the overexposure by having shot in RAW, but ideally I shouldn’t have had to.

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Overall, this has been another good lesson, in part about lens selection, but also for helping me identify a habit I’ve acquired over the last few years. As my initial use of wide angle lenses was itself an attempt to address a particular habit, it would seem that the concurrent (and perhaps more important) take away is to not get locked into a certain way of doing things, but remain flexible and open.

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