Monday, August 24, 2009

Michelle and Justin

Yesterday I had the honor of photography Michelle's and Justin's wedding. It was all at the Country Squire in Grayslake. A venue I have been to many times in the past twenty plus years. I have known Michelle and her family for over thirteen years. Her father was the senior pastor at our church for many years. It was great to see so many old friends again.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

What I use ... and why

I was having a bite with a friend the other day and we were talking about equipment. Get two photographers together and usually the first thing they will talk about is gear.

Now Jim has been a shooter for many years and has recently ventured out on his own. He's got good gear, but wanted to know what he should get next. Don't we all want to know that. Well, in my magnanimous way, I quoted my one of my favorite authors, Zig Ziglar, who was fond of saying, "Everyone is entitled to my opinion." We laughed, but it got me thinking about my camera bag and what I have in it and why.

I have been doing this full time for over 22 years. I have things in my bag that help me to do my job better. I have things in my bag that help me do things easier. And I have things in there that do both. My way is not the only way. It is just the way I do things. And, I like the results I get. Do you have to get the stuff I have or use it the way I do? Of course not. But take a look and think about your situation.

Fast Nikon Glass
I admit that I am a Nikon Lens snob. I only use Nikon lenses. I have many friends who own OEM lenses and they all admit that they are "pretty good." When someone says, "they focus fast enough for me," that seems like faint praise. Nikon lenses focus faster than OEM lenses. And most lens tests I see show the Nikon lens to be sharper than the others. That's why I use only Nikon lenses. I had a friend recently tell me he was buying this particular OEM lens to use until he could afford the Nikon lens. He will pay more (even if he sells the first lens) because he has bought twice. I say just buy once and save money. But, that's just me.

I pretty much have all F2.8 lenses (except my 50mm F1.8 and my 300mm F4). As I told someone recently, the point of a 2.8 lens is not necessarily to shoot at F2.8, but rather at F4. You cannot do that with a zoom lens that goes from F4.5-5.6. Oh, you could shoot at F5.6, but that requires more flash power. It also makes your background darker unless you lower your shutter speed which could introduce camera- or subject-motion.

The fast glass also allows you to shoot in much lower light. For a wedding photographer, especially one doing a more candid, photojournalistic style, this is a big plus. Did I mention VR (vibration reduction)? My 70-200mm has VR and I can effectively hand-hold that big mutha at a 1/60th. My 300mm F4 is not VR and I need to be at 1/350 or higher to get a sharp image.

Side note Rule of thumb time. The slowest shutter speed to use hand-held is 1/focal length. So that would be 1/300 for the 300mm lens. And it is effective focal length, so using a DX camera, take into consideration the crop factor. That 300mm lens on a DX camera would effectively be a 450mm lens. So your shutter speed should be 1/450 or faster to get a majority of your images sharp.

My lenses are:
10.5 F2.8 Fish eye (the only DX lens I have)
50mm F1.8
14-24mm F2.8
24-70mm F2.8
70-200mm F2.8
300mm F4

I really loved my 18-200mm F3.5-5.6 but it was a DX lens that turned my beautiful D3 camera into a 5 mega pixel camera. I sold it because I didn't want to make the image size sacrifice. The FX sensor can be a curse and a blessing!

Professional Grade Camera - the Nikon D3
Did I mention the D3 camera? The best camera IMHO on the market right now. It cost an arm and a leg, but I will not be replacing it for a few years. The high ISO capability makes it ideal for wedding photography where I need to make images in dark churches and receptions. With the D3 I can photograph at ISO 1600 and not even have to use noise reduction. I can use ISO and 3200 and 6400 and just add the noise reduction in Lightroom 2 to clean them up. I love it.

Another benefit of the D3 is that it is a very comfortable camera in you hand. It just feels good. It is a very heavy camera, but it feels so good in your hand that you don't notice it. It is Nikon's Professional series, so it is built like a tank (hence the weight). It is dust and moisture sealed like no body's business, so it shrugs off bad environments.

Using the D3 and the fast Nikon Glass with the new "smart" SB900 flashes allows me to use flash techniques that other combinations of gear just can't. I can bounce the light from the on-camera flash to the side to create a direction of light and get a good exposure at F4, 1/60, at ISO 1600. I cannot do that with an 18-200 on a D300.

Those are two of the main elements in my camera bag. Next time I will delve into the accessories I have in there.

The Groom was nice ...

Yeah, sorry, another post without an image. Just me rambling about something I think is valuable to the journeyman wedding photographer.

Saturday's wedding was wonderful. I got to work with an old colleague (well, I'm old and she's still young - I think we started working together when she was still in the womb). It was her wedding and I invited myself along as assistant/second banana. Not a place I find very comfortable. So, in a sense, I was working on stretching my comfort zone.

The bride was fantastic and looked like she modeled (or had in the past). And the groom was nice, too. But he had no patience for the photographers or getting his photos done. By the time we got to the reception all he wanted to do was see his friends and party. We still had pretty much all of his family photos to take, but he was too busy.

So I, and this is the part I want you to really listen to, started following him around. Not obnoxiously, but respectfully. When I saw him light up when he saw a friend, I stepped in and motioned for a picture. He was delighted. I told him I would be close by and if he wanted a picture, just turn to me and I would do it. He started turning to me frequently and soon was motioning me to follow him all around the reception area as he actively sought out people. After a while, I saw his brother close by and suggested a photo. He readily agreed. And then we went back to wandering around looking for friends. After about another dozen of these shots, I saw his mother close by and suggested that we do a photo with her. Again, he readily agreed. At that point, I decided to take a chance and suggested that since his dad was close by, why not bring his mother over and do a photo with his mother and father. He agreed and we got that shot. When I suggested a photo of him and his dad, he waved me off, but countered with a group request of him, his father, and two of his uncles. I did it and suggested him and his father again and he agreed.

All throughout this "follow-him-around" time I was building a rapport with him just by being close by and ready to do whatever he wanted. Later in the night I found I could suggest things and he would comply. But all the while, I was close by and would step up any time he turned to me for a photo. I became his "personal photographer" and I was there for him. I had his best interest in mind and showed it by taking whatever he wanted. When it came time at the end of the night to photography the couple's good-bye shot, my friend, the lead photographer, sent me to find the groom and get him to come out for the shot we had planned. All the rapport I had built earlier really came in handy as he complied. Even when I grabbed his coat, he put it on without a word.

The moral of this story, kids, is to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Simply showing a willingness to do whatever he wanted. Showing a willingness to follow him around and do what he wanted to do, helped to establish a relationship between us that allowed me to do my job and get him the images that he will want at some point in the future. Image not having a photo with your mother at your wedding. Inconceivable!!!

A side note to all this is being prepared. I was prepared for each shot. I was changing settings (ISO & color balance) as we moved from the outside to the inside or vice versa. I was in position to simply raise my camera, fire, and be done. Just a few seconds, and I was back out of the way. In short, I was ready. Being fast is very helpful and people really appreciate not having to spend a lot of time posed and waiting while the photographer fumbles with his equipment. You can usually do a test shot before they are ready, just so you are ready.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mental (and verbal) Review

Saturday I was shooting a wedding and we did all the photos ahead of time. It is a great way to go, because you get everything done before the ceremony, so there is not rushing through the process because the church lady is gonna kick you out or they have to get to the reception right away.

It can be very confusing because while everyone is there, they frequently are not "right there" when you need them. This makes for a disjointed flow to the shoot and you really have to be on top of you shot list, either mental or written.

Saturday, I found myself doing something that I guess I do all the time. But for some reason, I took note of it this time. When we were about to wrap up the shooting, I went to the bride and groom and verbally reviewed my shot list with them. It went something like this.

"Ok, let's think now. Sally, we did you by yourself, you with your mom, you with your dad, you with your mom and dad, and you with your mom, dad, and brother (I knew in advance there were no grandparents). We did you with each of your attendants, and then a group of the bridesmaids with you. Oh, wait we skipped that, so we have to do that yet.

"Then we did Bill by himself, Bill with his mom, him with his dad, him with his mom and dad, and then we added in his sister to the group. We did him with each of the guys, then the group of the guys with him, Right? OK

"Alright, we did the two of you with your folks, his folks, your family, his family, and the entire wedding party. And we did a bunch of shots of you together at the beginning.

"So, we still need to do you with all the girls, oh and Bill with Sandy (his cousin who was the flower girl). Is there anything else? Great let's get 'er done!"

That simple, quick review revealed that I had missed a group shot (because someone was missing at the point where I would have normally done the group) and that the flower girl was related to the groom (which I did not know). And I got the chance to ask if there were any other photos she (and the groom) wanted.

Knowing your shot list inside and out and being able to quickly and easily communicate it is essential. This is the shot list I have used for over two decades, and is still the bare minimum you need. It has an easy flow and can be verbalized quickly and checked off with the couple.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Practice Practice Practice

I was talking to a friend a few days ago and we were discussing lighting and flash and technique. He mentioned that he had given up on the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) because when he tried it at a wedding it never seemed to work. Then he said that he had gone to using the manual flash settings because he knew that about "that far away" gave him just what he needed.

What he was doing was using his experience, gained over time, to know that at a specific distance, a specific power setting would give him a predictable result. How did he know that? By doing it over and over again until he could remember and repeat it. Now he is on automatic.

You can do that with the CLS system, too. You just need to practice. Do it at home. As I mentioned yesterday, do it on your time, at your home, with your kid, cat, or spouse. But do it. With digital, it costs nothing. You gain the experience that you can take to the next wedding or portrait assignment.

And it works with other things besides the CLS system. Work on using your on-camera light to bounce off surfaces. Try it at home and get a feel for it so when you are on a job you can go to it with confidence.

All these techniques are like tools in your tool box. You could use a hammer (on-camera blast flash) on everything and get the job done. Or you could pull out a screwdriver (bouncing flash to one side) and fix a situation. Or grab a power saw (off-camera TTL-CLS outside) for a different scenario. Arm yourself with the tools of the trade and the tricks of the trade will come.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Before and After

In my previous post about natural looking flash, I did not have before and after shots. Understandably, I could not take the chance to do before and after shots of the bride and her mom coming up the aisle. But I did do before and after shots as I was waiting.

This is what the ambient light looked like in the church. Remember, this was ISO 1600, F4.0 at 1/60th.

This is what happened when I added a little flash bounced from that wall.

What a difference with a little flash added to the mix. Of course it helps to have fast glass and a camera that looks great at ISO 1600. But remember, this will likely never be more than a 4x6 image or a small part of a layout in a digital album. Any noise will likely never be seen at those sizes.

Take your camera and try this. Do it at home, do it with your child, or your cat. But do it and get comfortable with it. Try things on your own time, so when you are on the clock, you can pull it off. Remember, learn the trade, not just the tricks of the trade.

Monday, June 29, 2009

More natural looking flash

I have been working on making my flash look more natural and less like Uncle Charlie's on-camera blast-flash. To this end, I made a flying trip (in my minivan) down to St. Louis to a workshop given by Neil vanNiekerk. There I learned to look around me for things to bounce my light off.

This past Sunday I did a wedding in the historic Kemper Center Chapel. As you can see, the ceiling is hopeless for a bounce source.

Which is good, as it would not give us a nice direction of light. As I waited for the processional to start, I glanced at the wall on my left and saw this.

I decided that I could bounce my flash off the wall and create a direction of light coming in from my left. You can see my flash boucing off the wall. Notice that it does not spill forward.

That is because of THE BLACK FOAMIE THING tm that Neil taught us to use. Basically it is a half-snoot that acts as a gobo to help direct the light where you want it to go and keep it from spilling where you don't want it to go. Here is the exact rig that I used, just as I used it. the BFT keeps any light from spilling forward. You can see how effectively it does that by looking at the image of the wall above.

The BFT is simply some black foam paper that you can get at a craft store like Hobby Lobby, Michael's, or JoAnne's Fabric. It costs less than a dollar for an sheet so it is pretty cost effective. I use hair scuncies to hold it on my flash head.

Anyway, here is the resultant image using the wall bounce on my left. I think it looks pretty darn natural. ISO 1600, F4.0 at 1/60, Tungsten white balance.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Better Sunsets

I have been working on getting better sunset shots recently. As the summer comes closer and wedding season is now in full swing, I wanted to begin creating more "Show Stopper" images. Here is one I did at last night's wedding of Maria and Ruben. The only manipulation I did was to convert from NEF (raw) to Jpg. Otherwise, it is right out of the camera.

The first image details are ISO 100, F5.6, 1/100 sec, 27mm on a 24-70mm F2.8 lens. I angled the on-camera flash slightly to the left so it would be sure to fire the Remote flash while still acting as fill on the couple. I tipped the on-camera flash up a little so it wouldn't illuminate the ground right in front of me.

I began by underexposing the sky by one stop. By the time this was taken, the sky was likely two and a half or three stops underexposed. I like the effect because it really brings out the deep blue of the sky. Without clouds, you don't get drama, like I did in this image.

The second image details are ISO 200, F4.5, 1/125 sec, 31mm on 24-70mm F2.8 lens.

Both images use an off-camera light held by my assistant/second shooter. It is fired by the Nikon Creative Lighting System, or CLS for short. That means the on-camera flash is acting as the Master and the off-camera flash is in Remote mode. I have been starting with the Remote set to TTL +1.0 and the on-camera set to TTL +0. I have been adjusting it an I now think I will start at Remote set to TTL+0 and the on-camera Master set to TTL -1.0. In either case, there is a 1 stop difference between the on-camera Master and the off-camera Remote.

Now that you have the basic technique, try it for yourself and experiment. The key to this is the off-camera Remote flash. Without it, the image just looks flat. With it, you get shadows next to highlights and that creates depth. And, the beauty of the digial SLR is the instant feedback you get. Now, go out and play!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Bagging" your flash

Back when I shot for the newspapers in the mid '80s, we had a term for putting a gel on your flash to match the ambient color temperature. That technique was called "Bagging." I am not sure why we called it that, but we did.

At the wedding this past Saturday we did a still life of the bride's shoes, jewelry, and garter. The wedding dress was hanging up in the background, but was lit by the incandescent light of the master bath. The bedroom was lit by a window and our flash. Here is the first attempt. It looks like what everyone else takes. Even "Uncle Bob."
You can see that the dress is a little orange due to the warmer light of the master bath's incandescent bulbs. I added at 1/2 CTS filter to the on-camera flash and and changed the white balance (WB) on my camera to Tungsten. This is the result.
As you can see, a much more pleasing rendition of the scene. This looks more professional and less like everyone else.

These filters can be purchased from most any photography store on line, or do a search for flash gels, flash filters, or color filters. They cost about $6 or $7 dollars for a sheet big enough you will likely never use it all. Then, you can "Bag" your flash and make your images look more professional and less like "Uncle Bob's."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Upcoming wedding

I am getting juiced. I get to photograph a wedding this Saturday at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Chicago with my good friend Bob Schueler from Indiana. It's gonna be a lot of fun. I hope to have some images to show early next week.

Bob comes from Indiana to go with me to weddings from time to time. He does it on his own dime because he wants to see what I am doing and learn from it. He works hard on his craft, studying things on-line and trying things out. And he is building a reputation in his own area as a go-to guy for local studios while he builds his own business. This is what it takes.

Speaking of studying, there is a wonderful resource on-line at Kelby Training ( They have on-line tutorials in Photoshop, Lightroom, lighting, gear, posing, and lots more. For less than $200 a year or $20 a month, you can have a seminar in your own home on you computer. Check it out and give it a try.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New Wedding Season is Approaching

Well, the weather is warming up and the wedding season is approaching. What have you done over the winter to keep yourself sharp? What have you done to improve your skills? Or do you think that you can't get better without actually going out on a wedding to photograph?

Over the winter, I scour the blogs from David Ziser, The Strobist (David Hobby), Joe McNally, and Neil Van Niekirk to mention a few. You could get a PhD in photography from them.

And I have bought and paid for a Master Class with David Ziser at his studio outside Cincinnati. It is five intensive days with him learning hands-on just how he does all those really great images. It goes from shooting to software to marketing. The whole package.

And, speaking of marketing, my friend Kristin has convinced me that I should branch out and take some chances to do some weddings and portraits for myself through Smiles Photography, Ltd. my own company. I am not sure just how that will go, but I am starting to get my name out there.

I love what I do. I have been a full time professional photographer for almost 21 years (my anniversary is April 15th) and was a part timer for four or five years before that. I am always looking for new and better ways to get things done. That is called growth.

What have you done to grow over the winter?