Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Play Dough and the Left Hand Flash

5 pounds of flour, a couple pounds of salt, food coloring, water and 7 kids under 5. Sounds like a recipe for disaster but we survived.

I took about 110 shots edited down to 26 shooting with the left hand flash technique. It took a while to process that shoot because on the whole it between 0.5 and 1.5 stops underexposed and with the all the flash bouncing the color temperature was all over the map. I've got in the can now, so lets look at a couple shots.

First up a sample of a problem with the classic ceiling bounce. We have fairly high vaulted ceiling in our kitchen and I was taking pictures of short people so the bounce was necessarily coming from a rather high angle. The net result is the eyes are in shadow (sometimes called "raccoon eyes"). This is the problem bounce cards are supposed to solve. Personally I much prefer the look of putting the bounce point further back to lower the angle incident angle but a bounce card makes "good enough" much easier. For my taste the light with a fill card it often too flat so I try to avoid it when I can. Control over the bounce location is the primary reason I had the flash in my left hand but it didn't help me here. I don't remember why I chose a ceiling bounce for this shot (probably something blocking the curtain behind me).

Here is a similar shot where I did a better job directing the flash. I would have liked the light even lower, but the bounced light is coming in at a low enough angle that there is some light in the eyes--no bounce card needed.

The first two shots in this collection could have been done easily with the flash in the hot shoe and rotating the head. This one, with a wall bounce coming in from camera right, would be tricker. In portrait orientation I usually hold the camera from above which puts a shoe mounted flash on the left. Holding the camera from below would get you this shot but it is on the awkward side. One tool for solving this problem is a rotating flash bracket. The camera rotates while the flash sits still so you can always take full advantage of the flexibility of the flash head. The left hand flash technique solves this same problem with much less fiddling.

Finally, a shot that was only going to work with a left hand flash. Blocked on all sides, I saw that a wall bounce wasn't going to happen and a ceiling bounce certainly wasn't going to give me any useful light. Then I looked down--the table was white! The light coming from below gives this shot something of a surreal look but I like it better than the other option: direct flash.

Hand holding a flash gives a lot of flexibility in lighting and better yet it is quick. I can adjust the light position while I am framing the shot. The biggest downside I see to it for candid photography is having to handle the camera with one hand. That is doable with a small prime lens but would likely get unwieldy with a bigger zoom. In the long term I intend to pick up a flash bracket (probably from RSS) and hopefully with practice that will similar results and let me handle the camera with both hands. In the interim I'll be working more on my left hand flash.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Why a blog?

At the beginning of July 2006 I switched from 35mm film (Canon EOS-3, before that a Canon T90, and waaay back in antiquity a Nikon Nikkormat and a ancient Contax body) to Digital (Canon EOS 5D). Shortly after that switch I began to realize how much the new camera has been teaching me about Photography. The extremely low per shot cost and the very rapid turnaround has prompted me to try things with the camera that I would have never attempted with film. Combine that with a extremely challenging and yet very available subject (my 2-year-old son Miles) and I have an excellent test bed for improving my skills. Over the last 6 months I have shot around 4000 frames on the 5D. Small change for a working pro, but quite a few for a hobbyist. More to the point, in a significant fraction of those shot I have been deliberately pushing (and sometimes exceeding) the bounds of my abilities. That may actually be less common among working pros because they have take a large number of more conservative money shots to earn their living.

Somewhere along the line I decided that I should start writing down what I am learning. Both just to organize my own thoughts, but also as a resource for anyone else going through the same process. As I started to follow the online photo forums I found many people with the same questions and problems as I have faced. For a little while I was fairly ambitious about responding to these posts when I felt I had something useful to day, but watching that thread get buried and then the same question resurface 2 weeks later gave me the feeling I was spitting into the wind. Not that I really expect to be heard here either but at least this way I can find the post again.

At various times I have entertained the idea of writing a book as a way of getting my ideas written down in a way that will last. I still think I might go there, but organizing something of that scope is daunting and I never seem to get started. A blog, however, seems much less intimidating. The nature of a blog as a living and breathing document makes it much easier for me to get started. Every post has sort of an implied ellipsis not only at the end, but also at the beginning. These are my thoughts right now. I'll fill you in on the background later and I'll let you know if anything more on this topic comes up.

Someday as I get the topics better fleshed out I may yet turn it all into a book. I have a working title and an outline. All I need is a text...

The Left Hand Flash

I tried a new (to me anyhow) flash technique over the weekend. I was shooting candids quickly in a fairly tight space and getting the flash pointed at an appropriate surface for each shot was challenging. After some fiddling with other approaches, I finally just picked up the 430EX and held it in my left hand, so I was shooting one handed with ST-E2 IR flash trigger mounted in the hot shoe leaving me free to direct the flash with my left hand.

So, how well did it work?

Handling the camera one handed worked reasonably well. I was mostly shooting at f/2.8 and still getting excellent focus. The only real problem I had focusing was occasionally firing the camera with the half press of the shutter button I was capturing the focus point. The biggest issue with camera handling was keeping the camera level. I had a lot of shots where the horizon was significantly out of level.I was shooting with the the 35/1.4 and 50/1.4, both of which are reasonably lightweight and lightweight lenses. As it was I noticed my right hand was getting tired; a bigger zoom might have been a problem. Of course a zoom is less useful in this scenario because the left hand is busy with the flash and can't ride the zoom ring anyhow.

The flash was somewhat more problematic. I lost around 10% of my shots because the flash didn't fire. Usually this was due to holding the flash with my hand covering the IR transceiver. That said, it was definitely a boon to be able to pick my bounce location quickly on a shot by shot basis.

The biggest problem I had was that the bulk of that the majority of my shots were between 1/2 and 1 stop underexposed. I had the camera on manual (IS0 400, f/2.8, 1/100ish) and was relying on ETTL-2 to set the flash power for proper exposure. I have a few theories that I need to test as possible reasons for the consistent underexposure:

  • There were a lot of white surfaces in the scenes and a brightly lit curtain in the the background of many shots. The metering may have been underexposing because of the backgrounds. If that is the problem then I just need to get better at riding the flash exposure compensation. My most successful metered flash shots have been when the background was 1-2 stops underexposed. I wonder if ETTL-2 is calibrated with that in mind and tends to underexpose when the background is bright. Certainly if I had dialed in +2/3 EV exposure compensation for the whole shoot I would have been much happier with the end results.

  • I have seen warnings about focus and recompose with flash exposure metering. The way I had the camera set up it was metering when I focused rather than when I took the shot. That is SOP for Canon Evaluative metering, but I have read (but never understood) warnings that it is problematic when using a flash. I am going to try using the * button for AF-lock, changing the metering mode, and fiddling with the AF-lock custom function to see if I can improve the flash metering.

  • It is possible that many of my bounce surface choices were costing me so much light that I was exceeding the power of the flash. That seems unlikely--I wasn't noticing long recharge times on the flash and some of my bounce locations were very close to my subject and the shots were still underexposed. Still, it is a theory worth exploring. I wish Canon would put the flash power in the EXIF; it would make diagnosing flash exposure issues much easier.

  • The whole experiment was successful enough to give me some good shots after some exposure tweaks in Lightroom. Hopefully I can work out the kinks and turn it into a reasonably reliable technique in my toolbox. On the whole though given the reasonably bright light levels I was working with I am not completely convinced I was better off using a flash. Clearly there were some cases where I could get light on to a shadowed face, but other shots would have had quite nice window light without the flash. While the results with the bounce flash are clearly superior to direct flash as a group they still (at least to my eyes) had that artificial flash light feel. Another flash technique I need to work on at some point is turning the darn thing off when it isn't helping me. Possibly that is a good use for the custom setup feature on the mode dial. That, hopefully, will be the subject of another blog entry.

    Tuesday, January 23, 2007

    Up and running.

    Woo hoo! The blog seem to be up and running with my custom domain name. Some poking around in the Google documentation and one quick support call to Easy DNS where they told me that an Alias on their configuration page generates a CNAME record and I have a working blog. Much kudos to both services that it doesn't require a Ph.D. in Physics to get this up and running.

    I thought about installing Blog software on my Gate server, but so far the Google service is looking reasonably good and is without question less effort to maintain. And, of course, the price is right. We'll see how well it works out. I always have the option of moving if I find a good reason to.

    Now that that is taken care of, a big hello to anyone out there reading this. This Blog is part of the web presence of my proto photography business, Liquid Air Photography. My main home page, hosted by Gate is still very much under construction. My gallery pages, hosted by Smugmug are in better shape but still being refined. This is still a hobby for me so all work on my web presence has to fit in the cracks of my life. None-the-less I have been happy that progress has been fairly steady, albeit slow.