Sunday, December 21, 2008

Nearly Christmas

After I recieved a request for a setup description of my homless photo, I decided to write one. I took a couple of setup shots right after I was finished with the photo, but didn't have time to post a blog entry.

I got this idea when because of the "Christmas Decorations" assignment on dps. I tried to shoot something out of the box, not just a picture of decorations. I wanted story telling too. One day, after I was finished at my job at the airport, I noticed that one of the hangars would be a great way to shoot "on-location" portraits in the winter months. I have also thought about shooting a photo story about homeless people, and somehow I managed to mix these two ideas with the Christmas Decoration assignment.

The setup
Before driving to the hanger, I had to bring some props in addition to the camera gear. So I wrote a list over things that would make the viewer instantly recognize the situation (Christmas and homless) in the photo. This is the list:

- blue nylon jacket
- sweater with hood
- worn-out shoes
- worn-out jeans
- cap

- empty plastic bottles
- cardboard
- pillow
- plastic bags
- cardboard box
- loads of Chritmas decoration
- crutch
- quilt cover
- paper cups
- "Merry Christmas" card

The only thing I thought was missing was a shopping cart.

I was supposed to bring all this stuff in addition to the photo gear to the hangar, while the wind was blowing up to 60 knots. I had to walk about 50 meter between the hangar and the car, so I didn't look forward to this task. I was very close to giving up, but I thought my idea was too good to let go, so I was determined to continue.

After arriving at the hanger with all the gear safely inside, I got a very pleasant surprise. On one of the shelves I found a shopping cart look-alike. I think it was a trolley that the cleaning staff use, but it looked more than OK for the project.

I started to arrange the setup in one of the corners. It was a very elaborate job to get that look I had in mind. With the Christmas decorations it almost felt like I was decorating a tree. After about 30 minutes of fine tuning, I got this:

(After I shot the picture above, I added the bag, bucket and the cardboard box. I also found an old vacuum cleaner with some appropriate colors which I placed by the wall.)

The light setup was pretty simple. Inspired by Dave Hill and Jill Greenberg I wanted to shoot a kind of subtle "artistic" photo, so I planned to use bare strobes. However, after some test shots, I realized I had to use an reflective umbrella to light up the trolley, since I got too many harsh shadows from that strobe. (It was too evident that it was an arranged picture). This is how the final setup looked like:

I attached the camera to the tripod and started adjusting the exposure.

There were a lot of grey tones in the scene, so was just adjusting the flash power equally on both strobes until I got a clean histogram with a peak on the middle. The light in the hangar was pretty warm and ugly, so I used minimum sync speed for the shutter to block it out, while using a narrow aperture to get most of the things in focus.

Final exposure settings:
Bare strobe: SB-600, 1/8 power at 24 mm
Umbrella: SB-600, 1/4 power at 24 mm
Exposure: 1/250 sec @ f/8, ISO 200
Lens: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D AF
Camera: Nikon D300
Flash sync: Optical with SB-800

Shooting and processing
I tried a lot of different poses for this shot. I was uncertain how to behave. I tried laying down while sleeping, sitting with my head hung down, and looking at the trolley. It was a lot of walking back and forth. I had to trigger the 20 sec timer for each shot, so I got a great leg exercise out of it. Finally I found that the looking tired and unhappy at the camera was the best. I looked dead in the other poses.

This is the best shot, unedited RAW file:

In Adobe Camera Raw I increased the clarityto about 50, the vibrance to about 20 and corrected the white balance. Luckily, the exposure was spot on.

In Photoshop I did this:

1. Duplicated the background layer and changed the blending mode to Soft light.

2. Added a high-pass filter (radius 44) on the Soft light layer and reduced the opacity to 70%. This created the slightly artistic look.

3. Used Surface blur on the Soft light layer to even out the surfaces while preserving the edges.

4. Lowered the master saturation a little while increasing the reds to make the decorations stand out.

5. Cropping, vignette and sharpening.

This is the result:

Nearly Christmas and a (hopefully) New Year

Surprise from above

Inspired by winning the "Christmas Decoration" assignment on dps, I wanted to try a selfportrait including fairy dust, a Photoshop techinque I learned earlier this day.

The setup
I hung a green cloth on the wardrobe and placed a SB-600 on lightstand in front of it, about 40 cm from the door. This was background lighting.

The camera was mounted on a tripod. Right next to the camera I placed another lightstand with a snooted SB-600 on top, pointing down at were my face would be.

Since the background flash was pretty close to the surface, I entered the lowest flash output on this one. For the main flash I held up a white sheet of paper and checked that the highlights didn't blow out on the histogram on the camera and adjusted the main flash accordingly.

I also used a narrow aperture to get as much of my face in focus. I shot with the timer on the camera, so I had to lock the focus prior to shooting by focusing and the lock it.

Final exposure settings:

Background flash: 1/128 power, 24 mm zoom
Main flash: 1/8, 85mm zoom
Exposure: 1/250 sec @ f/11, ISO 200
Lens: Nikkor 25mm f/2D AF
Camera: Nikon D300
Flash sync: Optical triggering from the camera

Shooting and processing

Finding the right facial expression and the positioning of the hands was the hardest part. After 30 or so shots I got a pleasing shot. This is the RAW file - straight from the cameram with no editing:

In Adobe Camera Raw I increased the clarity slider to about 50, adjusted the white balance a little before I sent it to Photoshop, where I did the following:

1. Added surface blur to entire image to soften the skin while preserving the edges.

2. Dodged the highlights and burned the shadows, both on the skin.

3. Duplicated the layer and added a high-pass filter on the new layer. Changed the blending mode to Soft Light and reduced the opacity a little.

4. Selected the greens with the Color Range tool and blurred it almost maximum to even out the wrinkles on the green cloth.

5. Covering some of the green background with black to make it more uniform.

6. Created the fairy dust using this Photoshop tutorial. (I'm sure I could have done it better than what I did in my photo, but my sketching capabilities are at level 0...)

7. Cropping, flattening and sharpening.

The result:

Surprise from above

John Brainard: Yes, I finally managed to put together a new blog entry before Monday, LOL.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Theory of Relaxitivity

This week's dPS assignment whispered gently "relax".

Getting the idea
For weeks now I've wanted to shoot something which I could cross-process, but so far my subjects have not looked good in offset colors. When I read about the assignment, I got the idea instantly; a dreamy, cross-processed high-key selfportrait of me listening to music. Would it work this time?

The setup
It was time to move my gear out of the computer room to the living room. The spot which I chose for shooting was right in front of the TV set so I had to be quick. My wife wasn't willing to listen to the radio the rest of the evening.

During the clearing of our closet yesterday I found a large white wooden plate. This was perfect for the shot. I placed it on the arm rest on the couch and placed a carboard box underneath on the other side. I mounted a translucent umbrella on a light stand with a SB-600 flash and another SB-600 (backlight) behind the plate (It's hidden behind the camera on the setup shot below):

Here's the backlight flash, pointing upwards along the wall.

I put on a blue color gel. The shot I had in mind would have a slight colored background, so I picked the blue randomly. It turned out to work just fine.

The camera was mounted to a tripod. I originally inteded to shot it myself with the remote, but finding the right head position was EXTREMELY difficult even with a mirror so I had to ask my wife to take the pictures. I took on a headset and layed my head on the plate, right above the couch's arm rest. I also had to place another umbrella under my chin for fill light. Please overlook my feminine pose in the shot below:

Finding the exposure was easy in this shot. Similar to my Leaf Diet shot I had to deal with almost white surfaces. Using the histogram on the camera I could increase the main flash's output until the curve ended up right below the over-exposure mark. (You can find an in-depth explanation on this in the Leaf Diet shot above). The output on the back light flash was reduced with one stop lower than the main flash. I also wanted to block out all ambient light, so I chose the max. flash sync speed on the camera:

Final settings:
Main light: 1/8 power at 24mm zoom
Back light: 1/16 power at 24 mm zoom
Exposure: 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 200
Lens: Nikkor 35mm f/2 AF
Camera: Nikon D300

Shooting and processing
I told my wife that I wanted my head to point directly on the camera and she instructed me accordingly. As mentioned I held the umbrella with one hand, and streched the headset cord with the other. After about 30 shots we got a shot we were pleased with. This is the SOOTC RAW file:

Since the exposure was figured out, I only had to adjust the whitebalance in Adobe Camera Raw.

In Photoshop I adjusted the curve slightly in each RGB channel according to this cross-processing tutorial on the dPS forum. I also had to increase the contrast in Curves, making a slight S-shape, but still leaving it a little faded. I also added a light vignette and cropped it a little.

The result:

Theory of Relaxitivity

The head pose that looked the best was very unpleasant since I had to force my sholder into the arm rest and hold my neck in an awkward position, with both hands occupied. It also felt kind of strange, because it felt like I was looking down on the floor, away from the camera. Of course, the autofocus wouldn't work everytime because my face was too dark and the AF illuminator wouldn't light up. I had to keep my head still in an uncomfortable position for "long" periods of time to get the shots. So, even if the picture depicts "relaxing", the circumstances was not relaxing at all. It actually wore me out, giving me a nasty headache... This is another example that pictures don't always tell the truth.

Another "fun" fact: While I was processing the photo, I noticed that my wife was wandering back and forth, looking for something. I didn't bother asking since I was so occupied. After the editing was finished I walked back to the living room to take the setup photos. After sometime I just had to ask my wife what she was looking for. It turned out to be her wallet.

I had to plead guilty at once. In order to get the wooden plate horizontal, I had to build up a support of a cardboard box, some books and a.... wallet.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Warhol's Light Bulbs

I didn't plan to shoot light bulbs so that they looked like an Andy Warhol creation, but when you don't have a plan for your work, you just got to accept whatever result.

Getting the idea
I thought the Still-life set on my Flickr stream needed a little punch in terms of colors. I have a couple of cloth backgrounds with different colors and wanted to use them. Of course I needed a foreground object as well and the first thing I found was a light bulb. Fair enough.

The setup
I placed the 40 watts light bulb in the midde of the room and hung a cloth background about 1 meter behind it. I pointed a SB-600 at the background, placing it as close to the light bulb as possible to avoid shadows on the background caused by the uneven background cloth (no, I didn't do any ironing this time either). I mounted the camera as close I could get on a tripod and connected a remote control.

The problem was that the light bulb was too bright. At minimum x-sync speed shutter at 1/250 and f/45 I got a pleasing shot of the inside of the light bulb, but I didn't get any background color. The SB-600 was just not powerful enough.

But after connecting a IKEA dimmer things changed to the better. Using the lowest setting on the dimmer I could open up the aperture a lot, making the flash useful again. I reduced the flash power to 1/8.

This is the edited version of the photo.

Light bulb

I thought it was an OK shot, but not as colorful as I wanted it to be. So I moved the camera to get the whole bulb within the frame and rotated it to portrait orientation. Since it wasn't as important to get the whole tungsten thread in focus I could open up the aperture even more and reduce the flash power again.

Final settings:
Light bulb: Minimum power, according to IKEA
Flash: 1/128 power at 24mm zoom
Exposure: 1/250 @ f/4, ISO 200
Lens: Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro
Camera: Nikon D300

Shooting and processing
I shot one shot of the light bulb with a different background for each. It was during this I started thinking about Andy Worhol's work (collage of the same object in different colors). I did a reshoot, making sure that the camera didn't move. As mentioned I used a remote control for extra protection.

With four images of the same light bulb with different colors I imported them to Adobe Camera Raw and increased the exposure by 0.7 stop. The only editing I did in Photoshop was cropping, cutting and pasting (and a whole lot of cloning to remove the speculars from the commander flash on the camera, but that's another story).

The result:

Warhol's Light Bulbs

The coloring could easily been done in Photoshop too, but it was kind of fun to this the hard way, like Warhol:)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Somebody, light a match!

Since Christmas is just around the corner, I thought I'd do something a little bit different. I wanted to shoot a lighting match in its most dramatic stage. I thought I had to use at least one strobe initally since I was uncertain how bright the flame would be. But no.

The setup
I understood that in order to focus properly on the match, I had to attach it to something. I found a small clamp and fastened it to a heavy object that would withstand the pressure while the match was lit. It actually took some time before I realized the logic behind this "heavy object":

Yes, it was a fire extinguisher! That made this whole situation much more comforting. Only problem would be that the extinguisher caught fire first, making it unusable, but I didn't have time to worry about that. I was here to shoot pictures.

I sat the camera on a tripod and attached my new remote control. This was pretty much it.

I often get tunnel vision when I find something interesting. That happened during this shooting. During the shooting of the first match, I was so caught up in looking at the result on the LCD-screen that I completely forgot that the match was still on fire! By the time I found that out, the match had melted the plastic coating on the clamp... Luckily, I had several of those:)

Until now I haven't put the D300 to the extremes. This time I finally did. By trial and error I found that I could go as far as the fastest shutter speed possible! That also meant increasing the ISO to the max and using a pretty wide aperture. Still most of the sparks would be appear with motion blur. During the test shooting I had to narrow the aperture a little because of the extremely shallow DOF, but the exposure seemed fine.

Final settings:
Strobe: A 1 inch match firing at full power
Camera: 1/8000 sec @ f/6.3, ISO 3200
Lens: Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro
Camera: Nikon D300

Shooting and post-processing
I focused on the match manually, swiped the match with the matchbox and pressed the remote shutter in burst mode (about 6 fps on the D300). Changing the match everytime was a bit tedious because the handle on the fire extinguisher was curved, making it difficult to fasten the clamp.

After 112 shots and seven matches I found a kind of interesting shot. This is the untouched RAW file:

In Adobe Camera Raw I only reduced the noise, which was definitely needed at ISO 3200, even on a D300. In Photoshop I cloned out the flares on the right side of the flame. I also adjusted the levels just a little bit and burned the head of the match (as if it wasn't burned enought in the first place...). I ended the post-processing with a square crop and rotation.

The result:

Somebody, light a match!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Red socket

I hadn't shot anything during the past two weeks and I was desperate. I had to find something to light up with my strobes.

Getting the idea
I searched the tool shed and I found a rail of deep sockets. Nothing special about that, but one of the sockets had a red cap and I still don't know why. Either way, I thought it looked as a nice focal point and I wanted to do a high-contrast tool shot.

I wanted a "grungy" background so I placed the sockets on top of a small toolbox which had a rusty surface. Soft lighting was out of the questions so I snooted a SB-600 and pointed it at the rim of the sockets. I realized that this would create a black area on the other side of the sockets, so I did the same thing on the opposite side.

I wanted to use the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 macro lens which has a minimum focusing distance of 1 meter. I had to climb a ladder to get high enough.

The Sigma lens is quite soft at 200mm so I had to turn it down to 170mm which is the longest focal length that this lens stays sharp. Focusing at the minimum distance at this focal length gives a very narrow depth of field, so I chose f/8 to stay safe.

Both strobes: 1/64 power, 24mm zoom (SB-600)
Exposure: 1/125 sec @ f/8 ISO 200
Lens: Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 macro @ 170mm
Camera: Nikon D300

Shooting and processing
Even though I used an aperture of f/8 the slightest movement brought everything out of focus. Using the tripod was unpractical so I took quite a few shots just to be sure that at least one stayed perfectly sharp (or at least as sharp as the Sigma gets....). I also had to re-arrange the sockets a couple of times for a more "tidy" look. From about 15 shots, this was the best (SOOC RAW version):

Once again it was a little bit underexposed, but instead of adjusting the exposure which can lead to increased noise, I increased the brightness in Adobe Camera Raw, and it looked better. In Photoshop I duplicated the background layer, desaturated the new layer and changed blending mode to Overlay. Reduced the opacity to 70%. This gave me a high-contrast look. The red cap faded a little so I brought it back with Selective Color. Adjusted the Level gliders and added a vignette. Finally I cropped it, which was really needed. A square crop is the only way to go with this kind of shape, IMO.

The result:

Red Socket

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Low-key selfportrait

I just wanted to write a description of my latest selfportrait, from which I learned a few things. The latest dPS assignment was "Headshot" and I thought about photos of actors/actresses, trying to say something about their personality. When I shot this photo I was kind of moody because it was late at night and very tired. Thus I wanted a dark (and hopefully) dramatic low-key portrait.

Focusing and kicker
When shooting a low-key photo I feel it's important to separate the subject from the background, but not too much, since I at the same time want it to blend with the darkness. So I decided to use a kicker/backlight instead of lighting up the background.

I started by hanging a black piece of fabric on the wardrobe closet. On the  photo below you see a pair of scissors on the floor. This marks the position where I would stand. Previously I had placed a light stand on this point and locked the focus on the light stand on the position where my eyes would be. Since I would be using a pretty large aperture, I had some leeway regarding depth of field, and as long as I positioned myself overhead the scissors, the focusing wouldn't represent any problems.

The photo above shows the snooted kicker flash (Nikon SB-600) mounted as high as I could. I made sure that when I stood on the scissors I could see the enitre flash head through the snoot. This would provide lighting for the back of my head.

Main light
On the opposite side of the kicker I set up a light stand with a 45" reflective umbrella with a SB-600. Originally I wanted to try cross-lighting, by sending the the main light parallel with the focal plane, but the first test shot looked so bad. I got a large shadow covering almost 30% of my face, making the portrait a little too low-key'ish. Therefore moved the main light against the camera, so that the umbrella pointed about 20 degrees offset from the imaginary focal plane... Sorry for this complicated description. Thank you, Microsoft Word, who made this illustration possible:

Since I'm looking at the camera, this placement of the umbrella, in addition to emphasizing the shape of the face, also creates catchlights at an approx. two o'clock position.

As mentioned, I wanted to use a medium-large aperture to get all of me in focus. I also wanted to use the maximum sync shutter speed to block ambient light. Each flash's ouput was determined by trial and error.

Kicker: 1/128 power, 85mm zoom
Main light: 1/16 power, 24 mm zoom
Exposure: 1/250 sec @ f/8, ISO 200
Lens: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D AF
Camera: Nikon D300

Shooting and processing
I tried a couple of different poses using a 10 sec timer on the camera. I didn't have a plan in particular, I just kept on shooting until I got a picture with some kind of "drama" in it. After about 10 shots I got this one (untouched RAW file):

After I imported it to Adobe Camera Raw I realized it was under-exposed. It didn't look that way on the LCD-screen on the camera. I had to bump up the exposure to about 1 stop, but luckily no noise was detected.

In Photoshop I increased the contrast in Levels and converted it to black and white with B&W Filter. Cropped it a little. I felt that it needed a little more treatment, so I did something I've never done before: Duotone. I converted it to greyscale mode and then Duotone. I chose a light blue color in addition to black. I probably could have done the same using a color layer or Gradient Maps. Here's the result:


I should have gotten the right exposure in-camera. I was probably fooled by the dark areas, leaving me to believe that my face was correctly exposed. The next time I'm shooting a low-key portrait I'll use my greycard and histogram again.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Great news!

One of my articles are featured on the dPS blog! You can read it here. It's describes the setup for this photo, called Leaf Diet:

Leaf Diet

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Color Peaks

This was a photoshoot had been looking forward to for a long time. Experimenting with water and colors was the reason I bought my strobes to begin with. To justify this expensive purchase to my wife, I really had to nail this shot.

The idea
As the time went by, I forgot about this idea. Partially because I didn't know how to do it and because I have been caught up in shooting bubbles and leaves. Yesterday, while I was at the grocery shop I discovered a rack of confectioner's coloring. Red, blue, green, yellow... Perfect! And they were cheap too. I bought one bottle of each, thinking that should be enough. Little did I know...

The setup
I filled a rectangular vase with water and placed it on the kitchen bench. On the wall behind it I taped a white sheet of paper as background. I put a SB-600 on the left side of the vase, pointing it on the paper. Mounted the camera on a tripod as close I could get (about 1 meter), with the 70-200mm f/2.8 macro lens attached. Filled the vase half full with water.

I wanted to drop three colors in the water at the same time so I had to arrange the color bottles in a rack with tape.

I had to find a way to lock the focus inside the vase. I planned to use a narrow aperture, but getting so close with a long focal length doesn't give much playroom in the depth of field (DOF). So focusing on the vase itself wouldn't work. I took two drinking straws and made a T out of them. I hung this T on the vase, which gave me a focus point  in the middle of the vase. I auto-focused on the vertical straw and switched to manual focus. This way, I didn't have to care about focusing while the colors unfolded their beauty.

As mentioned, I wanted a narrow aperture to get as much as possible in focus, since I couldn't foresee the movement of the colors. I needed a relatively high shutter speed to freeze the motion. My plan was to shoot in burst mode, which means 6 frames per second on the D300. In order for this to work I had to use the smallest flash output usable for the camera settings, which would ensure fast charging times and at the same time getting a completely white background. Prior to this photoshoot I thought over-exposing the background would work well, since I've done that several times before. I discovered quickly that I could do that in this shot since the colors are exposed by that very same light. Over-exposing the background would also over-expose the colors, resulting in blown-out colors. Using the histogram on the camera I quickly found some appropriate settings with a low flash output:

Speedlight: 1/64 power at 24mm zoom
Exposure: 1/160 sec, f/10, ISO 200
Lens: Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 macro
Camera: Nikon D300

I held the color containers on the edge of the vase while pressing my other finger on the shutter and poured the liquid in the water. This was much harder than expected. The movement of the colors was pretty random and most importantly, because of the nozzle on the bottle and density it was pretty diffucult to pour the color fluid out of all three containers at exactly the same time, which the following montage clearly shows (these shots were shot before I zoomed in closer on the vase)

I wanted three more or less identical flow of colors and this lead to a lot of work. Every time I had shot a series of photos, I had to empty the vase for contaminated water, wipe it completely dry, fill it with excacly the same amount of water and lock the focus with the drinking straws. I shot about 10 series, so I spent about two hours at the kitchen bench, doing mostly this:

The reason I had to quit was that two of the bottles got empty and the grocery store had closed.

After I had uploaded the photos (1,8 GB of RAW files) I found one - 1 - shot that looked pretty interesting. This is the straight-out-of-camera RAW file, obviously turned upside down:

If you look closely on the white background there is a gradient going from white on the right side to almost 50% grey on the left side. I had no idea why this had happened, since I was exposing the entire visible background. Looking at the vase answered my question: the vase was rectanguar, but the glass itself had a slight planoconvex shape seen from above (I know, I have never heard that word before either, but thanks to wikipedia, I know now). The picture below shows an exaggerated illustration of the vase.

Have you seen this shape before? Do you know what a lens is? Exactly, the vase was a lens. I suspect that was the reason why I got the gradient background. I also got some chromatic aberration which I haven't seen on the Sigma lens before. The planoconvex shape on the vase was also a good reason for not focusing on the vase itself, but on the drinking straw.

Enough ranting, moving on: I didn't do any adjustments in Camera Raw except for WB. I imported it to Photoshop and used the Curve tool to fix the background which I wanted to be completely white. I sat the white point on the darkest area on the background, which made the colors look blown-out. Then I adjusted the red, yellow and blue sliders in Selective Colors to bring back the colors again. Adjusted the contrast and crop a little. Sadly, I had to do some cloning to the left of the blues because of the reflections in the glass. 

When this article was written, I didn't have the JPG file of the final image. Only the PSD file which I couldn't convert due to strict policy rules on the computer at work. Thankfully, two members on the dPS forum were more than happy to help me to convert this PSD file to JPG so that I could upload it to Flickr. I promised to credit them in this blog:

JimnyClickit started helping me at first with a head start, but Fletch quickly took the lead since JC was using a dial-up connection with about one hour download time on the 13 MB PSD file, while Fletch used a whopping 3 minutes:) Anyways, thank you both!

The final image

Color Peaks

Color Peaks

Well, I got to finally take pictures of colors in water, but I'm not sure I'm very pleased with this attempt. I was hoping I could get a "cleaner" looking photo. Instead I got a grungy look that almost looks like painting on a piece of paper. I will definitely try this again, may be experimenting with only one color. But in the end, it was funny to have tried it, and some lessons are learned. Getting a vase that's not a lens, trying different ways to light the subject and other backgrounds.