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.

January 30, 2009

Future Project Ideas

Filed under: projects, technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 1:53 am

I tend to do well if I do the “spend a month on some subspecies of $activity”, rather than try to perfect everything at the same time. Here’s my list. No idea if I’ll actually do any/many of these, but it’s an idea. (continually updated, I hope)

Short-term Projects

Stuff that could be done in a couple of days.

  • Manual focusing (Godfrey DiGiorgi’s technique at the forum posting)
  • Hold the damn camera level
  • Try everything with 1×1 (square) format
  • Nothing but the 50mm lens
  • Shoot B&W in-camera to force B&W visualization (and so you see the B&W results when chimping)
  • Long exposoures
  • “painting with light” – with Mr. Kebbin’s mega spotlight
  • Figure out nuances of graphics tablet
  • Play with the Nikon D3 SDK
  • Shoot just in DX
  • Nothing but wide-angle
  • Figure out all the Nikon focusing modes
  • Work on body strength and hand-hold the 70-200

Longer-term Projects

Devote a month to it

  • Portraiture (in progress)
  • Learn Lightroom (in progress)
  • Printing
  • Panoramas
  • Macro
  • Dense detail (stitched closeups)
  • Improving composition
  • True Photoshop studliness
  • True Nik Filter studliness
  • LAB color studliness

January 18, 2009

This month’s Projects: Portraiture and LightRoom

Filed under: Aperture, Lightroom, projects, technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 5:02 pm

Now that Learn Objective-C has shipped, I actually have some photography time to myself. Just got back from business travel, so my months now run from middle of the month to middle of month.

This month, the projects are:

  • laurel_web.jpg Portraiture. I’m going to be taking some individual and group portraits of my friends in the Aeolian Winds of Pittsburgh. I’ve already shot some individual portraits (as seen here), and some group shots at outdoor concerts, but never a “formal” sitting of the individuals and group. This will also be an excuse to go back and re-read all of my portraiture books.

  • Lightroom. Aperture so far has been my Photographic Axe of choice. I love the vaults and way I can bounce around and do stuff. Unfortunately, there are just a couple of things that have really been getting on my nerves: Nearly all of my portrait-orientation photos come out rotated wrong, so I have to find and rotate them manually, which then destroys the correctness of the “landscape/portrait” metadata. Also, doing bulk edits with plugins (like the Nik filters) causes the edited images to end up in stacks (which is fine), but not as the pick. Cmd-/ (make pick) does not work with multiple selection, so I have to manually set the pick for every stack. When you do this with 2 or 300 shots, well, that sucks. Frequently, when paging through large collections in full-screen mode, Aperture will get stuck at the “loading” phase. Going back and then forward clears it, disrupting the working rhythm. Also, I still can’t make Levels do what I want it to do like I can with Photochop curves. And I really like the Fill Lightâ„¢ control in ACR. I haven’t been able to duplicate that in Aperture.

So, I’ve picked up the Scott Kelby Lightroom book, and I’m also a Kelby Training subscriber, so this month I’m gonna live in LightRoom and see if things are any more pleasant.

March 29, 2008

New Gallery: Bones And Stones

Filed under: D3, gallery, technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 3:23 am

New Gallery, where Torin and I go on a photo shoot in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh. Originally we were going to do street / architecture stuff, but the weather was truly dreadful, so we went into the Carnegie Dinosaur Museum Thing, and also Heinz Chapel.

For folks who question the usefulness of the Nikon D3(00) Live View mode, I must say that it made many of these shots much easier, both in getting critical focus, and for composition where the camera was in an awkward position on the tripod. Much easier to see the screen than to look through the view finder upside down hanging by a rope, or something like that.

February 15, 2008

Diffraction Limitation

Filed under: technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 2:14 pm


Sean McHugh has a write-up at about Diffraction Limited Photography: Pixel Size, Aperture, and Airy Disks. Includes a calculator to see where your setup starts to get diffraction-limited.

February 11, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Nikon AF Speedlight Flash System

Filed under: Books, Buy It, flash, Nikon, technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 6:24 pm


Rating: Buy It

I’m shooting a friend’s wedding in a couple of weeks. After doing some test shots in the church, I decided that I should invest in a flash unit (I ended up getting a Nikon SB-600). The instruction manual that came with the flash is a typical Nikon manual : lots of information, but not in a useful format or presentation.

I had seen the Magic Lantern Nikon AF Speedlight Flash System at the local Barnes N Ignoble, and even flipped through it once or twice. After getting the SB-600 and its manual, I stopped by the store and picked up a copy of this book. I’m glad I did.

Speedlight covers the history of Nikon flash systems, from the early film speedlights up through the modern SB-600/800 models. There is a good introduction to the Nikon nomenclature and how it has evolved, as well as coverage on specific flash and camera models and the specific features that each has.

The only downside to the book are some editing here and there (some “insert three-tree graphic”, and a confusion of ‘principal’ and ‘principle’, plus some poorly edited sentences), and the actual photos in the book. The author apparently was under the impression that the book was to be produced in color. The photographs themselves are a very blocked-up black and white. Luckily for the fill-flash illustrations, it’s still possible to see what’s going on.

February 1, 2008

Just finished reading: Scott Kelby’s 7-Point System for Photoshop

Filed under: Books, Borrow It, Buy It, technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 5:49 pm


Rating: Buy it (if you’re new to photoshop or are overwhelmed by it, otherwise Borrow It)

For the longest time I’ve avoided Photoshop, generally using it for the occasional tone adjustment or lens distortion fixing. In my mind, Photoshop = highly processed phographic excesses, like what you see on the daily photos at Yes, having someone eaten by ivy is cute, but is it “photography”? I don’t think so. Is a collage made by cutting up oil paints an oil painting? No. If that won “Best Photo” at a competition, I would be unhappy. Spending hours and hours in photoshop making something like that would be torture to me.

That being said, I flipped through Scott Kelby’s 7-point Photoshop book at the bookstore, and noticed it was a very extended tutorial on different photo enhancement and manipulation techniques. “Woot!” I thought to myself (saying that too loudly in a quiet bookstore is frowned upon). This kind of presentation is how I learn computery things best, having learned BASIC back in the bronze age by typing in game listings from magazines.

I spent the better part of a weekend working through all of the exercises : Scott provides (via the internets) a set of 21 images, most raw files, some jpegs, and leads you step-by-step through tweaking them. There is a lot of “Click this to add a layer. Change the color to white. Choose a large soft brush and start doing xyz”. For someone who really hasn’t spent a lot of time with Photoshop, this was a godsend. With all of the encyclopedic tomes out there, it’s hard to know where to start. This shows you where to start.

His “7 point” system is actually quite amorphous once you start working through the tutorials. Officially the system boils down to:

  • Process your image in Adobe Camera Raw, set white balance, tweak settings
  • Adjust curves
  • Bring down highlights and fill in shadows.
  • Painting With Light – using a bright layer behind the photo to paint in brightness. You too can be as cheesy as Kinkaid.
  • Channels adjustment, includng the “Lab move”, which changes pixel representations to do some adjustments
  • Layer blend modes and masks – tweak stuff in a layer, and pull them selectively via masks
  • Sharpening

The actual step-by-steps flow in and out of these, without real demarcation between them, like sometimes heavy sharpening happening during the Camera Raw stage. Most of the time there’s not a clear description about why one technique happens at one stage of a pipeline, and then is performed at another stage on another photo. Sometimes there is.

Many of the tweaks he shows I think I can find use for. Some others, such as pasting in an extra rowboat, or faking a lake reflection, are not in my realm of manipulations I’m going to do. (“if I do this and it wins Best Photo in a competition, would I feel like a fraud?”) Some of the end results (such as the ocean liner in front of storm clouds) look very processed and quite fake, even in the book.
I don’t like that look, but it was good to go through the steps to see what’s involved. If nothing else, to know what to avoid.

The writing style is Kelby’s usual. I find his stuff fun to read. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but doesn’t go over the top in “see how funny I can force this material to be” as I’ve seen in some other books. *cough* .

So, if you’ve been afraid to touch photoshop, or haven’t done more than some very simple things, this book could be good for you. If you know what you’re doing, though, you’ll be bored.

January 30, 2008

$1 Image Stabilizer for Any Camera

Filed under: technique, tripod, video — Mark Dalrymple @ 4:42 pm

“Cobbler” has a video where he builds a $1 string-based monopod, using a 1/4″ bolt, string, and a weight, whereby you pull up on the string to stabilize the camera.

January 24, 2008

Hyperfocal Distance Guide

Filed under: technique — Mark Dalrymple @ 9:28 pm


DOFMaster has a discussion about using the hyperfocal distance for a lense for getting the maximal depth of field.

Depth of Field extends in front of and behind the plane of focus, which is a waste if you’re focusing at infinity since the extra DoF after infinity isn’t adding anything. By focusing closer, but still keeping the far-end of your DoF at infinity (which is the hyperfocal distance), you can get more of your foreground in focus.

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