Monday, September 12, 2011

Respect to the Photo Assistants

Assistants are the unsung heroes of any good photoshoot.  They are the ones hauling the heavy gear over hills, through the jungles, and across sand dunes.  They are the ones getting pounded in the surf or fighting gale force winds while holding the reflector to get "just the right light". They are the ones protecting models from mosquitos, rogue waves, nosy onlookers, and from falling off of cliffs.  They are the ones doing just about everything else so that the photographer can stay behind the camera and concentrate on getting the shot.

Assistants go through hell sometimes, just for the sake of the final image.  Yet most of the time when people see the final image, they'll praise the photographer, the model, or the makeup artist.  They rarely ever think about what the assistant went through during the shoot.

Great assistants make the photoshoot a success. I have been very lucky to have amazing friends to help me on shoots (and believe me, I need ALL the help I can get).  Most of the images you see in my portfolio simply could not have been done if it weren't for all their help.  Ron, Q, Allan, Jen, and everyone else - thank you for everything that you do.  Photography is a team effort and I am nothing without all of you.

A good photo assistant knows what the photographer needs even before he or she does.  They're like a backup brain for the photographer who has to keep track of so many things during a shoot.  At times they can even quickly help troubleshoot problems that a photographer can miss if and when he or she gets flustered in the middle of a shoot.

"uh, your White Lightning strobe might work better if you plug it in..."

Having a second pair of eyes on the scene is invaluable.  The assistant can remove trash or other things that would detract from the image, saving the photographer from having to "fix it in post".  Really good assistants know what lens the photographer is using and can make an educated guess as to what he or she is probably seeing through the viewfinder.  For example, if there is a fish-eye lens on the camera, it means that the photographer has a very wide field of view, so keeping unwanted elements out of the frame may mean moving equipment and or people to a position behind the photographer.  Conversely, if the photographer has a long telephoto lens on the camera and is shooting a 3/4 or headshot, the assistant knows that they can bring a reflector in very close to the model to get better light on them.

Assistants that know lighting really well are invaluable when setting up strobes.  Understanding what the photographer means when he/she says they want "Rembrandt lighting" or "Butterfly lighting" saves time because the assistant has an idea of where and how to position the lighting.  Besides helping with placing and metering lights, assistants also can stand in for the model at times so that the photographer can see what a particular lighting setup looks like on a person before bringing in the model to the set.

When the assistant is setting up lights behind a model, if they can see the lens of the camera from where the light is, there's a good possibility that the light might flare into the camera and they can setup a flag to prevent that.  The same thing can be done outdoors.  When a photographer is shooting towards the sun, an assistant can see if sunlight is hitting the front of the lens.  If it does, that usually means lens flare and a loss of contrast in the image which can be reduced by holding up something to shade the camera lens.

If the photographer is some distance away from the model, assistants can relay information back and forth between them.  For example, in the studio when the assistant is holding a fan in close to the model to blow her hair around, usually the noise from the fan will drown out the photographer's directions to the model.  Since the assistant is usually closer to the model than the photographer, he or she can quickly relay the photographer's directions to the model instead of having to listen to "What?!  You want me to do what?!?!".

Assistants also constantly keep watch on the model's hair and makeup and can quickly fix stray hairs or adjust jewelry or call in the makeup artist for touchups.  It saves a lot of time instead of having the photographer stop, walk over to the model to fix things and walk back to start shooting again.  Keeping the flow going during the shoot makes for a better experience for everyone.

Posing and other ideas for shots is another area that assistants can help with.  I try to always encourage people that work with me - if you see some new angle that looks cool or think of a pose that might work better, speak up!  I've had assistants find new shooting locations, train models in the proper handling of firearms, and advise models on how to do anime-inspired posing with samurai swords.  Many times they'll come up with an idea that works out to be better than what we had originally planned.

Even if you have many years of experience as a photographer, it never hurts to volunteer as an assistant to another photographer from time to time, no matter what their skill level may be.  I've always believed that you can learn something new from any photographer.  Sometimes you can learn a new lighting technique, discover a new location to shoot at, or maybe see a good pose that you could incorporate into your next shoot.  Other times (especially if you are working with me) you can learn what NOT to do.

"this Pocket Wizard I found floating in the river - is this yours?!" 

To all of my friends that have helped me in the past -  thank you for being the best assistants that a goofball like me could have.  The images we have created together simply would not exist if it weren't for all that you do and I am eternally grateful. Don't ever hesitate to ask if you need help with a future shoot.  I'll always do my best to try to be there for you, because you have all always come through for me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sunset shoot with Valerie - working with the Pocket Wizard Flex TT1

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 200 1/250 @ f2.8

After we left the studio, we headed out with model Valerie Wessel to the west side of Maui to try to catch the sunset.  At first we were planning to go to 505 Front Street in Lahaina, since the water is usually pretty calm there.  While driving along the coast however, we came across this old fallen tree on the side of the road that was halfway in the water and I thought it would make for some interesting photos. Besides, it kinda sucks these days that you have to pay for parking nearly everywhere in Lahaina.

We started on top of the fallen tree with the model's back towards the sun.  Our lighting was a WL1600 with a 7" reflector, powered by the Vagabond Mini Lithium and triggered with the Pocket Wizard Flex TT1 trigger.
PocketWizard MiniTT1 Radio Transmitter for Canon TTL Flashes and Digital SLR Cameras
We just got the Pocket Wizard Flex TT1transmitter and TT5 tranceiver a few months ago and have been using them on a few wedding shoots to trigger an off-camera strobe. One of the things I like about the TT1 is the lower profile it has on the camera as opposed to the Plus II tranceivers.

PocketWizard PWP-TR 801-125 PLUS II Transceiver (Black)PocketWizard MiniTT1 Radio Transmitter for Canon TTL Flashes and Digital SLR Cameras

Another nice feature of the TT1 is the ability to do what is called HyperSync, which allows you to exceed the native flash sync speed of the camera when using a non-Canon flash such as the WL1600.  The TT1 comes with software that runs on PC or Mac and lets you plug in the TT1 via USB and tweak the internal settings of the TT1 so that you can fine tune this ability to your particular camera/flash combination.

In this case I was using a Canon 5D mkII which has a sync speed of 1/160.  The Hypersync feature of the TT1 allowed us to crank the shutter speed up to 1/500, with the only catch being that the WL1600 had to be set at full power.  Dropping the power level of the flash down meant we had to back down our shutter speed to 1/250.  You can find out more about the TT1 and hypersync on this blog by Adam Swords.

Couple of drawbacks of the Flex TT1/TT5. First the build quality of the hotshoe mount blows chunks is relatively poor. The TT1 is designed to mount in your camera's hotshoe, then you have the option to have a flash mounted on top of the TT1.

Although the hotshoe on top of the TT1 is sturdy metal, the foot of the TT1 that slides into your camera's hotshoe is made of plastic.  Freakin' plastic. Mounting a Canon 580 EX II flash on top of the TT1 stresses the plastic foot to the point where it will eventually snap off.  Which actually happened to me during a wedding the day after I had received the unit.

Luckily I was able to order a replacement hotshoe mount (actually bought several 'cause I just KNOW it's going to wind up breaking on me again) and it is relatively easy to replace.   Directions for how repair the hotshoe foot on the Pocket Wizard Flex TT5. The procedure for the TT1 is roughly the same.

The second problem has to do with range.  When using the TT1 and TT5 with a Canon580EX or EXII flash, you are limited to a range of about 20-30 feet.  Anything past that and the flash triggers intermittently.  Pocket Wizard says this has to do with RF interference generated by those particular flash models.  Some of the solutions they suggest are:

1. Use the the AC5 RF Soft shield on your flash.  I don't care for this since it blocks access to the flash controls and makes the flash look like a saggy sock puppet.
2. Use the AC7 RF Hard shield on your flash.  I didn't go this route either because the design of the AC7 hard shield prevents you from using an external battery pack with the flash.  What the hell were they thinking?!?!
3. Use an older model Canon flash, like the 550EX.  (This is what I've been doing lately when using the TT1 at weddings)

Sorry for the rant, I got sidetracked for a minute there.  Ok, back to the shoot.

Using the TT1 and a shutter speed of 1/500 while firing the WL1600 at full power allowed us to easily overpower the afternoon sun.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 100 1/500 @ f11

Just for kicks, I also wanted to try out the RadioPopper triggers so that we could experiment with what could be done with small flashes in this setting.  We rigged up a painter's pole with a Canon 580EX flash and the Radiopoppers and fired off a few shots.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 100 1/1000 @ f8

Had to fix a little underexposure in Lightroom, but I liked the effect that we got with it.  Having the 580EX on the painter's pole really made a difference as it was easier to get the light up higher and closer to the model for a better lighting angle than we could get with the WL1600 on the standard light stand.

To do some wide scenic shots we turned Valerie around and shot from the other side of the tree.  This time we used the sun as her main light and filled in the shadow areas with a silver California Sunbounce Mini reflector held by Ronald.  Use a circular polarizer filter on the lens to pull in more detail in the sky.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 100 1/160 @ f5.6

We then moved to the branches of the tree that were half submerged in the water.  We used the reflected light of the Sunbounce as Valerie's main light and used the sun as her rim light. I swapped out the circular polarizer for a neutral density filter so that I could shoot with the aperture wide open and blur the background.  Used a faster shutter speed to freeze the water splash.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 400 1/1250 @ f2.8

For this image I needed a higher camera angle to put the ocean completely behind the model so I stood on two of the larger branches of the fallen tree, trying to keep my balance and not drop the camera into the surf.  Probably should rethink my no-camera strap policy when shooting in these kinds of environments.

Also need to send props out to both Ronald and Valerie for this shot.  Ron for being willing to get completely soaked in the surf as he got the reflector in close for the best lighting.  Valerie for her ability to hold the pose and expression steadily and patiently as wave after wave crashed into her from behind while waiting for me to get the timing of the shot right.

For sunset, Valerie changed back into the blue dress that she had worn in the studio.  We used the WL1600 light  and the Flex TT1 trigger for the rest of these shots, this time adding a beauty dish to the mix.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 400 1/250 @ f8

Had Valerie whip the dress around a bit to add some movement to the image.

 Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 400 1/500 @ f8

The original plan we had for going to 505 Front Street was so that we could get the model almost neck deep into the calm water and do a headshot to show off the makeup against the sunset.  Since by now it was too late to change locations, and the surf conditions by the tree prevented us from attempting that particular idea, we compromised and did an implied nude shot against the sky.

Since Valerie was wearing a nude-colored swimsuit underneath the dress, this was relatively quick to set up. We had her pull the top of the dress down to around her waist and adjusted the placement of her arms and the angle of the lighting to hide the swimsuit top in the shadows of this image.

  Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 400 1/250 @ f5.6

The wind started to pick up which made for some nice dynamic images towards the end of our shoot together.
 Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens iso 400 1/250 @ f5.6

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Studio shoot with Brittney & Valerie / Background Lighting

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

Last month we had the opportunity to work with two Maui models - Brittney Baker and Valerie Wessel.  Makeup and hair was done by Kahulani and Ronald assisted us on this shoot.

A white wall can be a very versatile background - it can be white, gray, dark gray, black, or almost any color you can think of as long as you control the light that falls on it.  For this entire series in the studio, the background was the same white wall.  All we did was change the lighting on it.

We began with a white background.  We lit a white seamless backdrop similar to the setup we did last year.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

The main light was an AB800 with a 5 ft Photoflex Octodome to camera left.  We used a silver California Sunbounce Mini reflector on the right for fill.  2 AB800s with umbrellas were used to light the back wall about 1 stop over the main light to make it an even white.  We did a few full length shots, then switched to our next lighting setup.

To drop the color of the background down to gray, we turned off the two AB800s in the back. The Octodome was switched out for a WL1600 with a beauty dish boomed above the model.  The silver reflector was moved to the front and below the model to bounce light from the beauty dish back into the model. We added an AB800 with a small gridded strip softbox and a 1/8 CTO gel to edge light her.  I darkened the edges slightly in Lightroom to put more emphasis on the model.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

Brittney is a great model to work with - not only does she know how to rock her poses, she has a look that is just wonderful to photograph.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

If you look closely at the catchlights in her eyes, you'll see the position of the beauty dish and the reflector below.  There's one thing to be careful about when you have a light boomed above the model.  Actually, there's two things.

First, always have sandbags on your lightstands so that they don't fall over and whack your model's head.  Your model will NOT be happy if it does.  And no, that did NOT happen on this shoot. :-)

Second thing is to study the model's eyes.  Some models have deeper set eyes and if you have the light too directly above them you'll start to get shadows in the eye sockets, which isn't very flattering.  If that happens, start moving the light towards the front of the model's face while taking a few test shots until you can start to see the catchlights in the eyes.

For Brittney's next outfit, we went with more of a Hollywood glamour lighting style.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

We used an AB800 with a gridded small strip softbox and a 1/8 CTO gel up above the back of the model to light up her hair.  We took away the beauty dish light and lit the front of the model using 2 AB800s - one with a gridded medium softbox for fill and one with a 7" reflector and a 10 degree gridspot which was aimed at the model's face.   The fill light was set to about 1 stop under the gridspot light.

Because we were using grids on the light modifiers to control the directions of light, we were able to keep most of the lights from hitting the background, which made the white wall go almost completely black.

Don't have the exact lighting measurements because I didn't have my light meter that day so we had to eyeball it. The overall effect we wanted to achieve with this lighting setup was a more dramatic look with her face being the brightest part of the image, in order to draw the viewer's eye to it.

One of the main difficulties of doing this type of lighting is trying to aim the light that has the 10 degree gridspot on it.  The gridspot turns the light into a very narrow beam that has to constantly be re-aimed at the model's face as she moves from pose to pose.  Miss it by just a little bit and her face will not have as much impact.  This is one of those times when you REALLY need to have an assistant.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

An added benefit of keeping the fill light off of the background and feathering the light (meaning not aiming the fill light directly at the model, but rather aiming it so that the light skimmed across her front), was that the shadows that it created helped define the folds of the dress which made it look more interesting.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

When we started photographing Valerie in her blue dress the folds of her dress really stood out in this lighting setup.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

Valerie is a very theatrical model, and at one point started playing around with some very dramatic poses.  To match the lighting to what she was doing, we used 2 AB800s with gridded strip softboxes for her edge lights and turned off the gridspotted AB800.  We pulled the softbox fill light off of the lightstand and lit her from underneath as her main light.  This resulted in a more evil look, similar to that of old hollywood monster movies.
Since there was very little light hitting the background wall, we were then able to add a little mood to the image by putting a splash of color to it using a Nikon SB26 on 1/16th power and a red gel.  We gaffer-taped a set of small barndoors to the SB26 to help control the amount of colored light hitting the wall.  We tried different power levels on the SB26 until we got the right amount of color intensity on the background.

A little smoke and lightning effects helped make the final image.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

For our final set in the studio before heading out to location, we went back to a gray background to get setup for a couple of shots of both Brittney and Valerie together.

Lighting for these final studio shots was with the AB800 and Photoflex Octodome for the main light and the two AB800 striplights. Since there was no grid on the Octodome, the light traveled past the models to light up the background a little, making it go back up to gray. While Kahulani put the finishing touches on Valerie, we did a few tests in this light with Brittney in another outfit.

 Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

We then brought Valerie back on for our final set.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

These two really photograph well together. There's a nice contrast of calm, collected seriousness from Brittney and the wacky playfulness of Valerie.  They probably could start in their own TV sitcom someday.

Canon 5d mk II 70-200 f2.8L IS II iso 100 1/160@f8

Friday, September 2, 2011

Say hello to my little friend - Vagabond Mini Lithium Review

During the military shoot on Oahu a few months ago, I tested out the new Paul Buff Vagabond Mini Lithium battery pack that I had rented from Photographics Maui (if you are ever on Maui and need to rent photo gear, they are a great resource to check out).

The Mini Lithium battery was a real powerhouse, lasting almost the entire day doing full power shots on a WL1600.  It's much more compact and lighter than the older Vagabond II that I had been using before, and lasts a lot longer.  

Because it's so much lighter, you can't rely on using it as a weight to hold down your lightstand like you can with the older Vagabond II.

The spare battery packs are easily swapped out and are not too expensive. 

One thing I didn't like about the VML is the design of the clip that is supposed to attach the battery to the lightstand.  Not the greatest design - in actual use when you clamp it onto a lightstand, it tends to slide down until it hits one of the joints of the stand.  Hopefully they will improve this in later versions.

Paul Buff also sells a carrying bag for the Vagabond Mini, which can also hold a spare battery.

Putting both the Vagabond mini and a spare battery pack in the bag gives it a little more weight to help hold down a lightstand, but it's a good idea to supplement that with one or two sandbags, especially if you will be using any softboxes or other light modifiers on your strobes.

One future application that I'm planning for this is using it to power LED light panels when shooting video.  In testing it with four HDV-Z96 LED panels, it seemed to hold up pretty well.  Will need to do a stress test with it to see how long it can last without anything blowing up.

Overall I'm really happy with the Vagabond Mini Lithium - it's lightweight and lasts long. It's also very affordable, to the point where I'm seriously considering getting a few more of these - one for each lightstand.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Working with Radiopoppers again

Canon 5D mkII 70-200 f2.8L IS II lens iso 800 1/200@f4

A few weekends ago I did a quick test session with model Jenni Sosnow from Model Mayhem. I mainly wanted to test out my Radiopopper PX triggers which I hadn't used in a while.

The reason why I haven't been using the Radiopoppers lately is for a couple of reasons.  First of all, the bracket used to mount the receiver to the front of the flash is made of plastic.

I've gone through about 2 or 3 of them already because the hotshoe mount of the baseplate consists of two teeny little tabs of plastic that have a tendency to crack.  Probably doesn't help that I'm rough on my gear to begin with, but I really wish they would make a stronger version.

Another reason is storage.  The plastic mount with the trigger adds a lot of bulk to the 580, making it difficult to store in my camera bag if I want to store the whole assembly together.

I've been looking for a container that lets me store the trigger, 2 receivers and 2 sets of the mounts separately from the flash.  I recently came across the Pelican 1060 case which seems to fit the bill, although it is a little bulky.

Pelican 1060-025-100 Micro Case with Clear Lid and Carabineer (Black)

The final reason is battery life.  The Radiopoppers have a built in battery level indicator (1-10) on their lcd display, and I've found that anytime I've tried using batteries less than "7" on the scale, it didn't always trigger the flashes reliably. I've settled on using Energizer lithium AAA batteries, and being very careful to take them out of the Radiopoppers if I'm not going to use them for a while (I had left some Duracell AAA batteries in there for a couple of months one time and had one leak battery acid all over the entire compartment).

For this test session with Jenni, I used a Canon 5D mkII and a 580EX II flash on a stand with a Radiopopper receiver and modified with a small Photoflex LiteDome. I triggered this via a 580EX on camera with a Radiopopper trigger. On this day it was overcast, so I mainly used this setup to add some directionality to the existing flat lighting.

I had the softbox in very close, just out of frame (the second flash that you see in this behind the scenes shot was not used in the final image).  Raised it up as high as it could go so that I could tilt the light down and get close to a Rembrandt style of light falling across her face.

Shot this in aperture-priority mode with -1 exposure compensation to darken the surrounding area a little. By using the softbox in close and slightly overpowering the ambient light, I was able to darken the shadows below her chin to help shape her face for the look that we wanted.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200 f2.8L IS II lens iso 200 1/800@f2.8