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Archive for December, 2010

Lesson Six: Ambient light -vs- Made light.

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Let’s talk about Ambient light,
because made light should explain itself, it’s light we make with big or little studio lights. Lights we turn on and off quickly as we take a photo.

But Ambient light is always on, it’s your desk-lamp in the corner, the sun coming through the window, or the moon. It’s the screen on your phone or tv, it’s car lights and lightning.  Streetlights and buildings, stars and fire are all examples of ambient light.  Ambient light is unforgiving, usually out of your control, and mostly ever changing without notice. That’s sometimes all the fun of photography and other times it’s the most frustrating part. But we learn to compensate with our made light and we find a common ground when we need to.

Natural ambient light is comfortable to look at because it’s the light we see things in everyday, while being dramatic at sunrise and sunset.
Whereas made light can be dramatic at any time with the right knowledge, and soft and subtle with the right control.

In this lesson I’ll show an example shoot that calls for particular attention to detail to get the right presentation.
We will use every trick in our photography arsenal to nail the correct exposure using:  Two Nikon speed-lights as well as ambient light.

Let’s discuss the needs of the shot:
I want to show off my phone  (not really but let’s pretend) and it’s great screen, sleek design, shiny appearance.
I want it to look clean and professional, without distraction, and perfectly lit.

The obvious distraction in any subject oriented photo is the background. In this project we will use high contrast to create a solid white background.
Overexposing the background to extreme white,  eliminates any data in these  “blown out” areas.  Giving a professional look that has zero distraction and is easy to mask out in photoshop for product placement.

There are two ways to achieve a blown out white background in studio.  One way is to use a piece of seamless paper background and overexpose from top to bottom, the entire area behind the subject.  As in the example photos below I shot for a company I work with. These are watermarked, but are unedited and came out of the camera looking this clean with pure white backgrounds.

But for this shot I want to include some texture (the hacky sack that is holding the phone)  to allow for an idea of lighting on porous surfaces as well as reflective surfaces.
So I am going to use a softbox as my background and point it directly into the camera from behind my object.
(I will cover surface textures and their light properties in the near future)

As for other distractions, you can see my phone has a lot of shiny edges and the entire screen itself is a big mirror.  A dull mirror, but given the right angle I could easily see: myself, the camera or anything behind the camera. When the phone is rotated to the left or right, the camera goes out of view in the phones reflection.  In product photography involving reflective objects such as watches, glassware, silverware… precise management of light angles and camera placement in mandatory. Below is a standard diagram showing the setup we will use to create this shot.

Things to consider when looking at the setup are:
~  The light inside the umbrella at camera left will cause a glare on the camera lens an needs a GOBO to shade the lens.  A GOBO is anything that will block light from entering your camera lens.  If you don’t have a stand for a GOBO, use can just use your camera’s lens hood.
~  The camera is in the vertical position, or Portrait position. since the subject is tall and fits that framing naturally.
~  I’m using a waist high guitar stool with a round top.  Consider working at a height that is comfortable as you might spend long periods at one setup.   Also, since you can’t work in the dark, you should setup in an area where the ambient room lights won’t cause you any harm.
~  Lights inside of softboxes point backwards to disperse light best. They loose a few stops of power as a result of this. Also a stop or two is lost as the light passes through the translucent sheeting of the softbox. This happens with shoot-through umbrellas too. You also loose some power as light falling outside the umbrella drifts of into nowhere. A softbox holds light inside, using the power more efficiently.

To find the correct exposure for a setup like this, we have to consider the needs of the photo and adjust the camera and light settings at our disposal to suit those needs. At the same time we have to find our Balance between the two speedlights, the ambient room lights, the ambient screen of the phone.

Looking at the needs of the photo: ~ It has to be very detailed and in pure focus.  ~ SO = We use a depth of field (DOF) theat has a good amount of depth (f 8 – f 11+)
~ It should have good clear resolution and we want to start out with our best file quality.  ~ SO = we set our iso low ~ (iso 200)
~  We want to see the phones screen in the photo. ~ SO = We need a longer shutter speed, this always depend on the amount of ambient. (Just start somewhere below 1/250th sec (because your camera or trigger’s sync speed is probably 1/250th sec, but check your manual)
~  We want to present the phone “as is”.  ~ SO = We make sure to use a focal length above 35mm, otherwise the distortion of the wider lenses  will balloon the straight lines and dimensions of the phone.

Once these considerations are met, we start to play with the finer details.

Lets look at a test shot to see how it looks with these settings:  iso: 400 ~  f /5.6  ~  1/250th  ~  62mm ~   (no umbrella light)  ~  Softbox at 1/64 power.

We need to start somewhere and this shot tells us we have almost killed the ambient light from the ceiling lamps (working light) a faint glow of light on the stool and a small highlight on the top right corner of the phone still exist with these settings.
Bumping down to iso: 200 will get rid of that remaining ambient on the phone and stool. The DOF is a bit shallow, going up to f /8 was the obvious choice.
After settling on iso: 200 and f/8 , I turned on the phone’s screen and ran an app so the phone would stay on while I worked with it.
A shutter speed of  1/2 of a second was needed to correctly expose the  screen from the distance the camera was setup from the phone, as light falls off over distance; and the phone throws off a very small amount of light as far as power goes.

Lighting our scene is the next step and takes playing with light levels and positions until a perfect mix is found.

Lets have a look at how these lights affect the photo:
Play around with the light buttons on the Flash movie and see how light changes the look of the phone as you turn them on and off.

In the end we have with both lights on;  an effective photo that shows the contours and features of the phone while keeping distraction to a minimum.
The ambient light has been tamed and used in the photo to provide a realistic look.
The backlight is balanced and provides the clean professional look desired, and the detail light (umbrella) accents the finer points of the phone, without creating distracting glows, reflections or shines.  “specularity” and “refraction” is in control.

So through proper planning and careful tweaking, using our knowledge of light and our camera:  A perfect success.

Stay tuned for lesson 7 and feel free to suggest lesson topics, pose questions or comment below, and share these lessons with your friends and family.


Lesson Five: Balance – ISO

ISO  ~ known in the past as ASA is the camera’s film-speed and is the third variable in the balance of a proper exposure.

Film speed was used in the past to allow for better camera performance in different and difficult light, and has adapted itself to the digital age to give us one more level of control in the hunt for the perfect exposure.

You will most always use a low ISO (200-400) in order to reap the quality rewards, and only bump up to your camera’s minimum good quality ISO (800-1000 usually) to gain some extra play with the available ambient light. ISO is directly linked to light and unlike Aperture and Shutter Speed it has only one function in exposure. ~  It will give you a boost to light sensitivity in your exposure for each interval it is raised.

Although it does nothing to your composition besides light sensitivity; it does have a secondary effect on the photo. Quality does degrade as you boost the ISO. First you see some acceptable grain, then tolerable grain, then unacceptable grain and in the end, colour banding.

ISO performance varies from camera to camera, and is always a topic of new feature sheets as breakthroughs are made in the science of digital ISO  all the time.  In the near future sensors will be able to provide usable photos in very low light situations without a flash.

Have a look at how ISO affects quality as it is boosted. It is more apparent in darker conditions like low light and night-scapes.

Using ISO to your advantage can open up some creative options that might elude you as well.  Sometimes you need an extra couple of stops to get the detail you need in a photo. You can usually live with a little grain in your photo if it means you nail the shot. My camera (Nikon D-700) preforms acceptably well into the iso 1600 range and if I have to go to iso 2000 I will.

ISO boosting is great when you have your Aperture and Shutter Speed set and don’t want to touch it because the composition would change undesirably. If you start out with your camera on iso 400, you have a bit of room up and down to play with if you run into the need for more or less light.

Together with Aperture and Shutter Speed, proper ISO setting is crucial to to the perfect exposure.
If you are to tame light, you must know where the ISO control is on your camera and keep it at the top of your mind as you compose your photo.

The next lesson will deal with Light. and how we can tame light with light.
Using ambient against itself and making light with flashes and strobes. This is where things get interesting.


Lesson Four: Balance – Shutter Speed

Photography freezes a moment in time, but it doesn’t always freeze the same length of moment in time.

Sometimes it freezes a thousandth of a second (1/1000)
a hundredth of a second (1/100)
a tenth of a second (1/10)
even one second or up to 30 seconds.
In extreme instances exposures ranging upwards of many hours can be used to draw out detail that isn’t visible to the human eye.

The Shutter Speed controls the length of time that an exposure takes place. The common range of DSLR’s is 1/4000 th – 30 seconds.

High shutter speeds like (1/4000 th – 1/800 th ) of a second means you can freeze fast moving objects such as a a humming bird’s wings or a water drop hitting the surface of a still pond.

The mid-range speeds ( 1/400 th – 1/8 th )are great for a variety of storytelling effects and can be used to balance the ambient light in a photo to suit the light needs.
At a certain point outside of the midrange of shutter speeds you will find extreme clipping. “Clipping” is what happens when the colour information for the lightest and darkest tones get lost as a result of under or over exposure. Once this Clipping occurs, you will loose the ability to print proper detail in clipped areas. Using darkroom (Lightroom) techniques, this detail can be salvaged to a point. But we do want to get it perfect in camera before we start to rely on post-processing.

The long shutter speeds (1/4 – 30 sec.) are great for shooting in dark city scenes with dragging car light effects, or when shooting astronomy or moon shots. Other times long shutter speeds can be used to create amazingly complex photos that defy the laws of the world we live in.

F- 5 ~ 1/100th sec

F- 13 ~ 1/160th sec

F- 3.8 ~ 1/4 sec

Have a look above at how Shutter Speed can be used to tell a story or freeze action.

Have a look below how shutter speed can stop a falling object (an apple) or allow it to “drag” through the photo bv varying the time the shutter remains open. At slower speed the object will leave behind a streak of  and then become a giant blur of colour. Good photographers learn to use this shutter drag to their photos best interest, to help tell a story or convey movement that will compliment the photo.

Shutter speed also changes the amount of ambient light, as it stays open longer, more light is allowed into the camera. In the following example ISO and some post processing has been used to best show the effect of Shutter Drag.

Move your mouse over the Shutter Speeds to see the different drag effects.

When you learn to combine  Shutter Speeds and Aperture, along with ISO tweaking and Metering the light. You are well on your way to understanding and then ultimately mastering photography.

In the next lesson we will look at the camera’s Meter and the different Metering systems that can be offered by different cameras.

Today’s lesson has shown us that besides being a controller of light, the Shutter Speed can help us show movement or stop movement.
It is another one of the tools at our disposal for storytelling; we now have Depth of Field using the Aperture and Time/Movement using the Shutter Speed.

Now you can be proud that you have almost all of the knowledge needed to start making great photos in your camera’s manual mode.


Lesson Three: Balance – Aperture

The purpose of general photography is to capture a moment in time, so we can enjoy it and share with others, the feeling we had when we took the photo. We are more likely to enjoy it, if we capture it just the way we saw it. There are some situations that call for a photo that doesn’t look like the scene from which it was taken. Artistic freedom permits you to control the light in any way you wish; but when you are trying to recreate an exact representation of a moment. it’s important to preserve all of the detail so others see exactly what you did at the time the photo was created.

Learning how to focus attention on an area of the photo to enhance it’s message or dramatic effect is done through proper Framing and by using Depth of Field to blur out distraction.  ~ Choosing to ignore either of these won’t result in a completely terrible photo, it just means the message may get lost in translation..

Have a look at how Depth of Field is used to blur the background into an unrecognizable state. this is accomplished by changing the Aperture, which also affects the amount of light entering the camera. In these photos I made up for the difference in light by adding more flash power to my scene. In natural (Ambient) light you could use your Shutter Speed to add light as you change your aperture size.

Aperture numbers are rated in increments called “F Stops”
A large Aperture hole = small number F 2.8
A smaller hole = Larger number F 22

Move your mouse over the F stops to see the different Depth of Field effects.

Of the four different sides to good balance:  Aperture  ~  Shutter Speed  ~  ISO  ~  Light.
Each has one thing in common = Light.

Aperture – Controls the depth of field in a photograph & Controls light into the camera.

Shutter Speed – Controls the timing of exposure allowing action or movement in a scene & Controls light into the camera.

ISO – Adds Grain to the photo by allowing the sensitivity to light to climb.  Which controls light falling on the sensor.

And…   Light – which contributes to the whole process but is not as consistent in it’s affect to it.

Meaning, while you can always count on Depth of Field or Shutter timing to work as you plan and the sensitivity of you ISO stops to be the same. Only consistent strobes can alleviate the need to constantly tweak to suit the lighting conditions. As photographers that’s what we do; we play with light and we work around light. You can be outside shooting great photos in great light and within moments, your light could be all over the place or gone completely.   Without a firm understanding of the light control within Aperture, Shutter Speed and Iso, you will find it challenging to step up the most daily photo routines.

There is more to know about aperture when it comes to using off Camera flash, but at this point of learning camera basics, we will leave the unneeded info for more advanced lesson topics.

From this lesson  you should take the following:    Aperture is one of four components to proper exposure.
It controls Depth of Field in a photograph as well as light levels.

At this point we can break for Lesson 4:  Shutter Speed.


Lesson Two: Basic Terminology – Some words you should know and why.

In this lesson we’ll talk about the words that make up the craft.

* This will be a concise terminology, dealing with only those terms that are important to learning the art of photography.

I will not be explaining terms like: SD Card, Battery, Tripod, Lens Caps, Megapixel, MegaByte… You get the picture.
Also at this point I won’t be talking about advanced terms such as:  Sync Speed, Aperture Lock, Colour Temperature…
These term will come up in future lessons and before getting into more professional concepts I will post a list of advanced terms.

Everyone has their own way of explaining how a camera goes about making photos. But we all have to refer to the same common components that allow the process to take place.  ~ Here is a mild breakdown of the most important things to know about your camera.


Terminology: ~ (In order of importance)

– This refers to the hole that allows light to pass into the camera;  found inside the lens on your SLR.
~  In a pinhole camera, the aperture would be the size of the hole.

Shutter – The camera’s shutter opens to allow light to enter the camera.  and closes when the desired amount of time has elapsed.

Shutter Speed – The amount of time the camera’s shutter remains open for.

Meter – Metering takes place inside the camera, it is the camera’s judgment of the correct camera setting for a proper exposure.
The camera’s meter reads the amount of light on a subject and scene. (or at the center/custom point in spot metering)

ISO -  (aka: film speed or ASA) – Describes the cameras sensitivity to light while exposing a properly balanced picture.
A camera can take better pictures in low-light situations based on this camera setting.

Depth of Field – This is the distance from the center of the focus point at which thing start to fall out of focus.

Focal Point – The center of the Depth of Field. The point of the subject or subject area that is meant to be in sharp focus.

Frame – The entire area of the photo as seen through the viewfinder of the camera.

Exposure – The process of making a photo is called “Exposing” but “Exposure” refers to the level above or below a perfect balance of tones.
(Example: If someone asks you, “how is the exposure on this picture?”  ~  They want to know:  is it too dark, or too bright.)

Ambient (light) – Light that comes from constant sources, such as: The Sun, Lamps, Overhead Florescent, and even Candles and Television Screens are considered “Ambient Light”. Although these are constant in the sense that they stay on in most cases, they are far from consistent, as clouds and or power surges can vary they intensity of the ambient light at any given time. Making reproduction of tones and colour more difficult.

Flash / Strobe (light) – Light that fires in an instant from any flash device attached to the camera’s trigger (usually via wireless triggers) are called Flash Speedlights, or Strobes. They fire in a split second and deliver consistent light levels, shot after shot.

RAW – RAW  images are taken directly from a digital camera without any in-camera processing.
(The opposite of RAW data is ~ JPG data ~ which is compressed and sometimes auto-corrected in camera at the time of exposure)

Image resolution – The size of the photos being captured on your camera.

White balance – A setting that tells the camera if it needs to compensate for unnaturally coloured light.

Grain – Grain is/are visual specks or texture on the photo as a result of ISO sensitivity rising above certain levels.   Iso 800+ on my D700

Histogram – A visual calculation of a photo’s exposure data within the acceptable rage of reproduction.
(This is a tool for knowing if your picture has colours or bright/dark areas that fall outside the range of printing)

Shutter Release – (aka “the thingy”) – This is your cameras built in trigger, it tells the camera when to open the shutter.

Sensor – The sensor has replaced film inside the camera for capturing the image from the lens. They are engineered to mock the properties of film to some extents and to out perform it in others.


So now we are caught up in our terminology, let’s talk about what these things have to do with making photos…

Photography is about balance, we’re dealing with the balance of light. This balance has a margin of  error is some respects, but only when dealing with static subject matter. Once you introduce movement into the equation, things get messy quick.  That’s because a huge part of the control we have over the balance of light, is through time.

In most conditions the camera fails to produce the desired image we see in our mind’s eye, this is true if it’s on Manual or Auto. If you have no clue how to balance an exposure (take a nice photo) and you leave the camera on Auto, chances are you will get a picture that is comparable to the scene you are photographing. But if you have any artistic sense and have a creative idea for the scene you are looking at; the camera will rarely take the photo you want it to.

You have two options to get a proper exposure:

1. Learn how to trick your camera’s auto mode into metering a select area of your scene to achieve a more desirable auto exposure setting. This is called (spot metering).
2. Take your camera off Auto mode, and take control of the creative process in one of the three Manual modes on your SLR.
The three Manual modes you have to choose from are listed below with their intended uses.

Shutter Priority: You select your desired shutter speed based on the artistic needs of the photograph, and the camera chooses the correct Aperture and camera setting to make a proper exposure balance.

Aperture Priority: You select the Aperture size based on the desired Depth of Field for the photograph, and the camera chooses the correct Shutter Speed and camera setting to make a proper exposure balance.

Full Manual: You have full control over both Shutter Speed and Aperture, as well as ISO and White Balance settings.
If you don’t set both Aperture and Shutter Speed correctly, you will likely make an improper exposure.
But when being creative and learning through practice, there are no worries about making a few mistakes on the road to a great photo.

The Balancing Act:

When we want to make a perfect or at least interesting exposure, we have to balance four different variables.

Aperture size  ~  Shutter Speed  ~  ISO  ~  Light

Each has a different effect on the final result and each one affects the balance of the correct exposure.
Sound confusing? It comes down to a push and pull of one variable to the next.

In the next lesson we will look at the relationship between the four different variables and how they affect your photograph.


Lesson One: Light in the Box – In the beginning there was light.

Welcome to my First Blog Post Ever.
I will do my best to take you through my knowledge and perspective on the vast subject of Photography.

I am going to start off with the very basics of the medium, but don’t be fooled.
Read on and you may just learn something.


Lesson one:  Light in the Box

As with most subjects, to begin to understand the fundamentals of photography we must look back to it’s invention.

Before digital cameras, before film cameras, even before cameras existed,  people were using the principal rules of light to expose themselves to sights and spectacles that the human eye could not see in it’s over perfected design.  As far back as 470 BCE (source: wiki) philosophers and scholars were telling tales and staging demonstrations of the new “Tech” of the times : The Pinhole Camera.  In short a Pinhole Camera is a light-tight box with a small hole at one end and a piece of film or photosensitive paper at the opposite end (inside the box). When light enters the box through the pinhole, it is captured on the paper in the form of a Photograph.      How? … Well it’s mostly magic.

Pinhole Cameras were the first in the long lineage of the camera, but as time and technology has managed to shift every facet of photography, the simplicity of the Pinhole Camera and the principles of light remain unchanged.  Even the most expensive professional camera of today is just a glorified pinhole camera with every bell and whistle crammed onto that light-proof box.  ~  Obviously some of these bells are necessary to produce the photos we’ve come to expect, but most of the whistles just get in the way.
If we could strip the camera down to it’s most basic of parts, we would have a clearer view of what strange Disney magic is making the picture we see on the screen or film.

In an attempt to better understand how something might work, our instinct (as scholars) is to get inside and study up close.  We could wait for Nikon to make a house-sized Digital SLR so we could climb inside or maybe if we stick to that low-fat yogurt we could hope to fit into a D300 by Easter…
On the other hand, we could look to the past and make our own house-sized pinhole camera and climb right inside.
It’s not new, but it’s probably one of the least know phenomenons to most, including the amateur photographer, though most if not all serious photogs will have heard the term… Camera Obscura.

The Camera Obscura is usually a giant light-proof box, a room with a window on only one side works well.  The room must be completely light-proofed (by blocking out all light from the window) and through a small hole poked in the covering of the window an image will appear upside down on the back-facing surface. This is a camera box that you can stand inside of. Traditional painters of the past would use giant Camera Obscura setups to paint scenes with precise detail.
It was this simple design of  “the projection of light” that sprung the entire invention of photography.

~   The process of funneling light for the purpose of retention is build within us all. We are cameras, it’s what our eyes are designed to do. They do it with such precise accuracy that we often fail to realize that the world, as we see it as humans, is only part of the picture.  In fact a whole world exists to us in perfect detail, as we scan from one side to another our eyes focus and balance for changes in light intensity.  Our brains have a great built-in system to make this all happen without any real thought on our part.  As do cameras; the AUTO feature of your camera is a great asset when shooting fast moving subjects or at times where fumbling with settings is impossible. But if we are to really understand how images are made; we must put our brains and cameras in MANUAL mode.   ~  If your brain doesn’t have a Manual setting or you don’t know how to turn it on… Upgrade or consult your owner’s guide.

In order to make consistent photos in every condition, we must put aside the AUTO feature and get in the driver’s seat.
Taking control of your ~Aperture~ ~Shutter Speed~ ~ISO~ and setting or judging light intensity and direction should become second nature  to you if you are to become a master photographer. As we progress through the blog I will present you with the knowledge to take control of all of the different aspects of the camera and photography as a medium.

I don’t want to complicate this lesson beyond it’s intended moral:
If you leave this lesson with one bit of knowledge it should be this…

To make a Picture: ~  Light goes in one end of a light-proof box through a tiny pinhole – It makes an image on the surface opposite the pinhole.
It also flips the image as it condenses it through the pinhole (see photo)

Light… It’s magic really.

For fun = Check out Google’s image results for ~ Pinhole Camera