Borkware Photoblog

February 11, 2009

The Shoot

Filed under: portraiture, technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 10:48 pm

My portraiture study was being driven by a woodwind quintet. The fine folks over at the Aeolian Winds of Pittsburgh are friends of mine. I occasionally sub for the bassoon player, and join for larger-than-5-player works. They asked if I could shoot some portraits for their website, since they needed some new ones after they changed flute players.


They rehearse in a church basement, a rather dim cavern with a decades-old linoleum floor and well-loved walls. When we were planning on the shoot, one of the players asked “he *does* have some kind of lighting right? It’s really dim in here.” I showed up with pretty much everything in my kit:

  • Three strobes (SB-800, 2xSB-600), plus their feet.
  • SU-800 commander unit
  • Spare batteries
  • Lastolite EZBox, attached to a monopod since the default bracket doesn’t tilt
  • Umbrella x 2 + stands (one umbrella was borrowed from my friend Torin, who graciously stepped in as assistant)
  • Tri-grip diffuser panel
  • Various gels.

The camera was mounted to a tripod. I decided not to shoot tethered since it took about 15 seconds from shot to appearing in Lightroom when shooting raws. The camera monitor was good enough for fussing over composition and lighting, and for showing folks the most recent shots.

D31_5007.jpgThe shoot was done in three stages. The first was individual photos, in front of a neutral bedsheet to a wall with Gaffer’s tape. We used a blue gelled flash for some of the backgrounds. That flash got kicked away part-way through, and we didn’t notice. D’oh. Torin held the EZBox on the monopod at a 3/4 position to camera-right, and we had a half-flagged umbrella for fill on the opposite side for some, and used the tri-grip for others.

I used the 70-200 f/2.8 lens for these, usually using focal lengths around 85-135mm.

The second one was the main group shot. There is a little raised stage in the basement – I was on it, with the group standing below. Two umbrellas with the stands extended all the way up. Ended up using the 24-70 f/2.8 lens for this, the focal length around 40mm. This is why there’s a little distortion of the horn player’s face on the left the shot there at the top.

D31_4977.jpgThe third minisession was another group shot in front of a wall. The sheet was too narrow for the group, so I ended up photoshopping out some door jambs and random wall decorations getting stuck in people’s hair. The umbrellas were on either side, with the trigrip in the middle to provide some fill for the person on the middle.

Lessons Learned

Having an assistant rules. It was really nice having another pair of hands. Torin attached the bed sheet to the wall, held the softbox, sat on the floor holding the tri grip, and so on. I wasn’t intending on having someone help out. It turned out he was in town and needed a break from other stuff he was doing.

A second pair of eyes rules. Fits in with the point above. In addition to all the other stuff he was doing, I had Torin check my sanity, help chimp, and offer suggestions. He caught stuff I didn’t notice. We both missed the blue-gel flash getting knocked out of place.

Have an idea what you want to do before starting. I knew I wanted to do the individuals against the wall with a neutral backdrop. For the first group shot we knew we wanted to try stage-down first, which worked out pretty well. When you have five folks’ worth of time being spent, it’s good not to waste it.

Remote commander units rule. It was so nice being able to dial the strobes up and down using the SU-800 on the camera. This saved a lot of time running around changing things.

Details matter, and you will drown in them. Having never done a Real Shoot before, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of detail to become oriented about. All the usual camera settings, not dropping the camera, light crap, where to put folks, verifying focus, entertaining the subjects. Getting the subjects to actually come over and pose. Having said subjects do stuff. Making sure nothing horrible is in frame (like the bedsheet edges. ended up cropping some of that). Random fur, sticks, whatnot on clothes (ended up photoshopping those out), why isn’t the damn autofocus kicking in, and on and on and on. Two hours later I was wiped out and ready to go home. Luckily we were pretty much done at that point. Even reading books and watching Joe McNally videos didn’t prepare me for the detail density.

I think I got some decent shots. Many of which I wish I would have done differently, but given the newness of it all, I’m pretty happy with them.



February 7, 2009

Self-Portraiture Tools

Filed under: gallery, Lightroom, Nikon, portraiture, technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 4:25 pm

Img0082.jpgYou can do all the book reading and video watching in the world, but it won’t help you much if you don’t actually practice the stuff. I have a problem with wasting other people’s time, so I ended up doing a fair amount of self-portraiture to experiment with different techniques and get a feel for the tools and gear at my disposal. I’ve done a couple of sessions in different parts of the house, and have come up with some things that worked for me.

One hard part is just triggering the camera. I’ve got a D3, which doesn’t have a built-in wireless shutter release, so I used a cable release for one session. That meant the camera had to be close enough for the cable to reach (it’s not terribly long), which meant using a wider lens (24-70 in this case) I’d be out of luck with a longer lens

A big problem was getting the focus even somewhat accurate. There was a lot of sit down shoot get up chimp tweak focus sit down shoot get up chimp tweak etc etc etc until I found a good spot. Once that’s done, you can leave the camera alone and just mess around with the lights.

For my second session I tried tethering. The first problem was getting a long enough USB cable to connect the camera and the computer. I found an “active usb cable” online which works nicely. It uses power from the usb port to enable a longer distance cable. I could get my 70-200 far enough away by using this cable.

The next step is software. Aperture can do tethering, but unfortunately, it locks out the camera controls. Once you start tethering, you can’t change anything on the camera. Lightroom can’t do tethering, but you can fake it by having tether software drop a file into the file system and tell Lightroom where to look for things. Things to make it go. Tip : go to “loupe” mode, and new photos will appear large on screen. Other library modes will put the new photos at the end and leave the current one selected.

Img0074.jpgCanon folks get remote control software for free with their cameras. Unfortunately (for me) Nikon tries to make their software a profit center. Camera Control Pro 2 is the software to use for remote control of the camera. It’s also $140-$200. Luckily there’s a 30 day trial, and I’m concentrating on this stuff for a month, so I can get by with the trial.

CCP2 is a nice bit of software, letting you change settings on the camera from your laptop, then click a button to fire the shutter. The image comes over the wire and gets dropped in the file system where it gets picked up by Lightroom. LiveView can feed a video stream to the computer, and you can trigger the contrast-detection autofocus. WOOT.

This means I can sit in my comfy chair, point the camera my direction (and hope the lens doesn’t shatter this time), use LiveView autofocus to focus, and trigger the exposure with a click of a button. I used a mouse so I didn’t have to lean over the lappy to fire the camera.

One alternative to tethering is to get a HDMI monitor and connect that to the camera. Set the autochimp mode and see the image appear after you shoot it. If the camera is physically distant you can’t zoom in or trigger other modes.

There’s still a fair amount of up-and-down action that happens, particularly adjusting lighting ratios. I used an SU-800 wireless trigger along with remote strobes. The SU-800 is attached to the camera, so you have to get up and piddle with that. Next time I’m going to try using a hotshoe extender cable so I can keep the commander within arm’s reach.

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