Friday, June 6, 2014

4.3 - Assignment: Cross, Balance, & Sculpt

The L102 course has two assignments back-to-back.  The first assignment was Film Noir that I discussed in my last post.  The second assignment is about restricting light and also incorporating the cross-balance technique.  The cross-balance technique was used in my previous post on Balancing the Sun where my flash was setup opposite the sun.  More information on cross-balancing can be found here.

A topic I’ve been reading a lot about recently is pre-visualization and this assignment is a good place for me to discuss it a bit.  Pre-visualization, to me at least, means visualizing the photo you wish to take and reverse engineering it to determine how you can light it.  In other words, picture the photo you want and figure out how to make it happen.  As a demonstration I'll take you through my thought process for tackling this assignment.

This past winter in Michigan seemed like it would never end.  It’s mid-May and I still worry about jinxing spring by declaring that it is, in fact, over.  With the long winter potentially over I knew that I wanted to be outside for this shoot.  To many, spring in Michigan means being able to grill outside (comfortably), spring flowers, the budding out of the trees, the return of the seasonal birds, or even the scent of freshly cut grass, but for me it means campfires!  Whether I’m camping up North or just hanging out in my back yard, there are few things I enjoy more than enjoying a good campfire, so I decided this assignment was going to done around a fire.

With that decided I needed to start thinking about light and a subject.  I took a turn at being the subject in the last assignment so it was my wife’s turn again for this one.  As a side note, volunteer subjects are welcome!  I visualized the campfire giving off an orange-ish glow and I thought that I could use moonlight as a cross-balance.  In my mind I'm picturing the warm glow of the fire contrasted with the cool light of the moon and I know that I can mimic moonlight with a speedlite if necessary.

At this point the photo in my head is really start to come together but I still have to satisfy the “sculpting” part of the assignment.  I was pleased with the results of my homemade grid spot in the Film Noir assignment so I decided I would use it again to do the "sculpting" in this assignment.  The problem is figuring out what I wanted to sculpt.  If I added any light to the subject I would be eliminating, or at least reducing, the effect of the warm-cool balance of the moon and fire.  I thought about restricting the moonlight but felt that it would look unnatural.  I also thought for a hot second about restricting the light emitting from the fire but didn't think I could restrict it enough to sculpt.  At this point I was a bit stuck.

An idea finally came to me while thinking about what we typically do around a campfire.  We, like a lot of folks do, roast a fair amount of marshmallows during the summer because smores are one of our favorites.  The idea was that I could light up a roasting marshmallow to to make it stand out a bit more, and by using the grid spot I could keep the light from spilling on anything else.  It wouldn't make a huge difference in the photo but it would accentuate a tiny little "secondary" subject.  With the final element planned out in my head all I had to do was wait for a nice night to have the campfire.

I could pretend that this final photo was my first photo of the night but that wouldn’t be remotely close to reality.  I set out about a half hour before sunset to get the fire going and get setup.  I tried taking some early test shots to test out my moonlight acting flash but I was still dealing with too much sunlight.  As the sun set and the sky began to darken I could really begin to work. 

It was a clear night with nearly a full moon out so I used it as a guide for the location of the moonlight flash.  Even though the moon was emitting quite a bit of light I needed to boost the light up a bit to balance it out with the fire.  The grid spotted flash was located on the ground just in front of the fire pit pointed up and away from the fire.  The grid spot restricted the light from spilling either onto the fire or onto my wife and added us a punch of light to get the marshmallow to stand out.

Please tell me what you think in the comment section below.  I also happy to answer any questions you may have.

The next post I will move on from restricting light and into the next method of controlling light.  If you are keeping track, there are only 3 more methods of controlling light left.

previous - next

Thursday, April 24, 2014

4.2 - Ultra-Hard Light / Film Noir

In my previous post, I covered my progress through the first segment of restricting light.  With a few household items I made a gobo, a snoot, and a grid spot and began experimenting with them.

The second segment of restricting light is ultra-hard light.  I discussed the difference between soft and hard light in a previous post titled Apparent Light Size, here.  Hard light refers to light coming from a relatively small source, such as a bare speedlite.  Ultra-Hard light is simply making the light source even smaller.  Using ultra-hard light can be useful when shooting through a gobo or cookie as it will affect the light pattern.

To produce ultra-hard light all you have to do is cover up a portion of the speedlite.  This will rob the flash of power proportionally to how much is covered up, but the trade-off is worth it if it produces the desired results. 

Photo from the 1949 film Stray Dog (wikipedia)
The next assignment in the L102 course is Film Noir.  Now you may be familiar with what those two words used in conjunction mean, but I didn’t have a clue.  Shame on my engineering professors for not covering this in college.  With a quick read on Wikipedia, I learned that Film Noir refers to a filming technique used in classical crime dramas of the 1940s and 50s.  In photography, a classic Film Noir shot would be a person in a fedora holding a pistol peering through Venetian blinds, shot in black and white with the light source being shot through the blinds to create a horizontal pattern across the subject’s face.  Hopefully you're starting to get an idea of what kind of mood this type of shot tries to convey.

Films in this category include classics like The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard.  More recent films that are an echo of the film noir period include: Se7en, Basic Instinct, The Usual Suspects, Fargo, Momento, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Sin City to name a few.  Some of my all-time favorite movies are listed there, so now not only do I know what Film Noir is but I also know that I like it.  Some of these movies have some great lines too.

"...I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze."
"Are you gonna bark all day little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?"
"What's in the box?"

For this assignment I proverbially wanted to kill two birds with one stone.  If you have ever read any lists on the web of, shots that all photographers should take, you have undoubtedly came across the "self-portrait".  So for this assignment I decided to do a Film Noir shoot of myself.

The shot was taken with a one-light setup.  I used my grid spot and set up the flash high and a skosh camera right.  The ambient was more than 3-stops below ambient exposure so it barely had any effect on the photo (without the flash the photo would have just been black). What I love about this shot is the flipped poker chip in the air.

A while ago, I noticed a function on my speedlite for firing multiple times at different frequencies.  The function can be used to capture an object at multiple locations as it moves through the frame.  I had never attempted to take a shot like this but while I was working on my Film Noir selfie I decided to try it.  Warning, do not try this by yourself!  I tried and tried to get the timing right as I waited for the self-timer on my camera to fire and failed over and over and over again.  Finally my wife came home from her fitness course and was willing to help me and it was still tough to get the timing down.

I had the speedlite set to fire 4 times at 40Hz and was able to capture the poker chip as it flipped through the air after many failed attempts.  I'm gonna count this assignment as three birds with one stone!

As always, thank you for following, and please post any comments or questions below.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

4.1 - Restricting Light

I’ve made it through the first three ways to control light: Position, Apparent Light Size, and Balancing.  Here’s a quick review of what we’ve discussed about these three controls.  Position will affect what is lit and what is in shadow and changing positing (or distance) will affect the power of the light.  The apparent size of the light source affects the length of the transition between highlight and shadow or in other words how hard or soft the light is.  Then the course got into how to use aperture and shutter speeds to balance between ambient light and flash. 

The next lighting control in the Lighting 102 course is restricting light.  This is a fairly simple concept to grasp, but it has some strange terminology.  David Hobby (author of the L102 course) separates restriction methods into four classifications: gobos, snoots, grid spots, and cookies.  These seem to be fairly standard terms they do vary a bit depending on the source.

The term “gobo” is short for “goes between optics” and is anything that shields a lights source.  Typically gobos are used to either shield the flash from spilling on to something in the photo’s frame or to avoid lens flare by shielding a the flash from the camera lens.  The Lighting 102 example of a gobo was a piece of cardboard, or something similar, attached to one side of the flash.

Figure 1: My gobo with the supplies I used to make it.
To the right are the tools and supplies I needed to build my own little gobo; a cereal box, hockey tape, scissors, and Velcro strips to attach it to the speedlite body.

Figures 2 and 3 below demonstrate how a gobo can be used.   The photos were taken with a flash set up to the left of the subject.  Figure 2 was taken without the gobo and Figure 3 was taken with the gobo attached. 

To help visualize what is happening in these two shots I took a step back and took photos of the whole set up.

Figure 2: Flash camera right with gobo attached.

Figure 4: Flash with gobo.

Figure 3: Flash camera right without gobo attached.

Figure 5: Bare flash.

By attaching the gobo to the side of the flash, it acts as a shield and prevents the light from spilling onto the wall behind Mr. Lego man.  This is just one example of how a gobo can be used; they can be made in any size or shape and are used to prevent light from spilling into unwanted areas.

Figure 6: My snoot with the supplies I used to make it.
Gobos are used to shield a light in one direction but if you want to shield the light source in all four directions you can use a snoot.  Snoots are basically four-sided gobos that fits over the front of a flash.  A snoot restricts the light in all four directions effectively narrowing the beam of light.   

I made a snoot from the same materials that I used to make my gobo.  Using gaffers tape would have been a lot easier than the hockey tape but, I utilized the materials I had at the time. 

The length of a snoot will determine the narrowness of the light beam.  You can buy them, or make them, in any length you need.  If you make your own snoot, make sure it fits snug on your flash so it doesn’t falls off easily. 

This photo was taken with a bare speedlite zoomed into 105mm aimed at a wall.
Figure 7: Bare flash, no attachments.
This is the same lighting set up with the snoot attached.
Figure 8: Flash with snoot attached.
A snoot doesn’t have to have square or rectangular sides.  Snoots, like gobos, can be made into any size or shape to restrict the light in the desired way.

Grid Spots
Grid spots are like fancy snoots and as you may have been able to guess, they offer even more control over light.  For the sake of being consistent, I decided to make my own grid spot as well and used Rui M. Leal’s tutorial here for help.

Figure 9: A look through my grid spot.
For this build I had to buy some supplies.  I needed black straws and I finally picked up some gaffers tape to make my life easier.  Gaffers tape is a bit more expensive than other types of tape but it is much easier to work with.  Gaffers tape is used extensively in any type of stage work because it can be removed cleanly without leaving a residue (unlike duct tape).  It’s also strong but easy to tear making it great to use with expensive camera gear.  Together with some glue (I used silicone but any glue would work) and the same basic supplies from the gobo and snoot, I had everything I needed.  This is what my grid spot ended up looking like.  The structural shape is similar to the snoot but straws are added to create the grid spot.

Here’s another look at it.
Figure 10: Photo showing my grid spot's shadow.

So how is the grid spot different than a snoot?  To find out, I first constructed a similar light setup to the one I used to test out the snoot.   I then took a series of photos starting with a bare flash, moving to the snoot, and ending with the grid spot to show the progression of light restriction.

Figure 11: Bare speedlite zoomed to 105mm aimed at a wall.
Figure 12: Same light setup with my snoot attached.
Figure 13: Same light setup with my grid spot attached.
Surprised by the shape of it?  I sure was!  You can see from the previous photos that the grid spot is rectangular, so why is the light pattern round?  Obviously it has something to do with the straws but beyond that I’m fairly clueless as to the physics behind this.  If you can explain this little phenomenon, please add it to the comments at the end of this post.  This was a result that I was definitely not expecting.

Cookies are anything that you put in front of the flash to create a pattern.  Sometimes cookies are also referred to as gobos that you shoot the flash through.  Cookies are used to produce a particular pattern of light and can be bought or made by using every day objects.

Here are a couple photos of a background that I took using improvised cookies. 
Figure 14: Pattern created with cookie #1.

Figure 15: Pattern created with cookie #2.

Cookies are useful for livening up a background.  Now, I said that these cookies were improvised and I truly mean that.  I didn’t have a leafy plant (a quick natural cookie) to use around house but while I was walking through my kitchen I did find a couple things that I could use.  I repurposed a pancake spatula and a fish flipper as cookies.  To prove it I took two more photos showing these improvised cookies.
Figure 16: Pancake spatula cookie.

Figure 17: Fish flipper cookie.

It is interesting what you can create with a few household items.  Typically I work out of my camera bag for my photography, but with this shoot it seems I was working mostly out of my kitchen!

I’m going to continue to experiment with my new gobo, snoot, and grid spot a lot more to get a good feel for how I can use them to enhance my photography.  Luckily, I get just that chance in the very next assignment.  Thanks again for following and please ask any questions you may have.