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The value of light

May 21st, 2012

I am not a people person. I resist photographing people - I prefer nature, and nature photography, possibly because nature (so far) has never complained about how I "made it look".

The other day I found myself at a brunch, with my main camera, and a group of friends - young and old - who expected me to take photos of them. Grr.

Fortunately the light saved the day for me. There was a skylight that brought in a lot of light but no direct sunlight to create sharp shadows; the walls were very light with lots of angles and planes, so overall the lighting was strong but diffused. This was especially important with the older guests who have been graced with laugh lines, wrinkles and other such natural phenomena that could cause deep shadows and perhaps equally deep resentment.

The effect was extraordinary. Each face was fully illuminated, allowing for portrait quality shots with minimal technical overhead; I could focus (pun intended) instead on the facial expressions and convey the moods and laughs lavishly as I cruised the room, never distracting anyone with a flash. I could not have done better in a studio - in fact definitely not, since then there would be the tension of posing for the shot.

Natural light works best. Living in sunny California helps ...

I love gadgets

December 14th, 2011

I love gadgets

I love gadgets.

An LED display, a couple of coloured indicator lights, and especially if there is a remote - I'm hooked!

But it definitely has to be useful too. Really useful. It has to fulfill a function that adds to my quality of life, or to take care of a function that I would otherwise have to spend time on - for example an automatic timer to take care of watering the plants on the patio frees an item off the schedule. Or a tablet device that makes it easy to choose play and identify music from the server or the Internet. Tell me the details of the weather outside. Provide me with a recipe for the food I'm about to prepare, in the kitchen rather than on the computer in the office.

So when I came across the Android app DSLR Controller by Chainfire, that connects to my camera with a USB cable from my Tab (no iPad version currently, sorry) I was intrigued. The app is still in Beta, but is evolving fast - and is now becoming really useful. The Tab displays a version of what I can see through the viewfinder or on the LCD in 10.1" size magnificence. I can change the ISO settings, metering mode, focus and much much more on the fly, more easily than the nested menus on the camera - also operate the shutter and view recorded images.

And now the latest version includes programmable bracketed exposure function, that controls the camera directly and so is not limited to Canon's three exposures, for long the bane of HDR camera enthusiasts (HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, a way to record an image more similar to how our eyes perceive the world than the basic camera sensors can convey).

I had an opportunity to use the bracketed exposure function last Saturday at the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum in Campo, CA - and it was a stellar success. To be able to take five bracketed exposures of large structures in harsh light conditions without a flash (but definitely with a tripod!) was a fabulously useful and time saving function. The detail I was able to capture in the shots is nothing short of amazing (you can see some of them at

Although the software is still in beta development, and has a few rough edges, it is fast becoming an essential part of my bag of tricks. The biggest problem can not be solved by the software authors however: images on the Tab wash out in bright sunlight, which is where I do most of my work. Maybe it's time to build one of those black cloth hoods as used in the early days?

[DSLR Controller by Chainfire can be found in the Android Market. Check to see if it is compatible with your equipment before committing].

Thanksgiving Dinner

November 28th, 2011

Thanksgiving Dinner

Before setting off for Thanksgiving dinner with my extended family, I was stressing about whether to take just my EOS 20D which has a flash and a basic EFS lens, or the EOS 5DMKII for which I have no flash but which does have a much better low-light sensitivity.

Of course I took both.

I found that as people (about 20) were gathering, and still a little formal and stiff, the harshness of the flash was not too much of a problem. I got a few disapproving looks at first (but aren't disapproving looks and comments what Thanksgiving gatherings are all about, at first at least?), but soon others joined in with pointandshoots and cellphones. Then after the meal, as we sat around for a long while chatting and digesting, it was best to use an automatic ISO setting to take care of the low lighting conditions with candle light and some tungsten in the background. This is when I took the softest and most intimate shots. It took some care to have the exposure calculation not be skewed by a bright candle in the foreground, and to wait for a moment when the subject was moving very little so I could use a 1/15 or even 1/10 second exposure. Which is why most of the shots turned out to be of people listening, rather than speaking! I checked the image almost after each shot to see how I was doing, which kept me on track.

Then later it was a long session in Lightroom. Naturally some of the low-light shots were unusable, but it's amazing how good and forgiving an Image Stabilising lens can be. (I did not use a tripod). Then there's the matter of the Red/Orange cast to the image. In Lightroom I found that I achieved a more natural effect adjusting not so much the White Balance as reducing the saturation of the Reds and Orange hues. (Of course I always shoot RAW). There is a surprising sense of intimacy that arises from using the Soften Skin brush (particularly on women) at high magnification on the monitor, and watching shiny and minorly imperfect skin become acceptable.

Then post them up to Facebook and watch the Likes and Comments flow in from all over the world. That was pretty much the best part!

[I've blocked out the faces for this public blog post image because this was a private gathering and I did not get Model Releases from anyone, but you get the, ahem, picture].

Something different ...

November 18th, 2011

Something different ...

I tried something different last weekend.

Mindful of the fact that I've frequently enjoyed going out on a walkabout with another photographer, or with someone who is sensitive to my photographic mood and viewpoint, and with no such muse immediately available, I chose to go out on a group shoot with the local San Diego DSLR club.

Normally I like to work alone, so I was somewhat shy and apprehensive. Plus it was a rainy day with almost no sun breaking through, not weather I would normally choose for outdoor work.

I need not have worried. I was immediately welcomed as a comrade in pixels and after a group pose we wandered off individually and in small groups around Liberty Station, the former Naval Training Centre that is being converted to an extended retail complex. The architecture is pretty amazing, long open corridors with arches and lamps, old style brickwork and decorations, peeling paint on the not yet restored areas to offer lots of texture and variety ... fun! The lack of sun was actually a plus, as the contrast between the light and shadows was not so extreme; I soon stopped mentally complaining about the weight of my tripod and put it to good use for some HDR shots of the long walkways that came out splendidly.

After about three hours we adjourned for lunch and swapped stories. Being a newbie, I was expecting something of a show and tell, and brought out my tablet, plugged it into the camera and was able to show off my shots in glorious 10.1" size (unprocessed of course). Others were not too eager to expose themselves in this way; as one member put it: when you upload to the club gallery for the shoot later and we all have a chance to comment on it, you'll discover the shots you missed. Yes exactly, lots of them! That's where the learning experience came in for me.

Doing something different and putting myself on the line is a way to expanding my skills and work. I welcome it and look forward to the next opportunity.