Saturday, March 29, 2014

Assignment - Balance - Part 1

I am incredibly excited about the Balancing assignment.  It is something completely different than the previous ones and it ups the stakes in a very powerful way.  But before I can get into the assignment I'm compelled to do a brief summary of where we are and what's been learned in the Lighting 102 course.

Where are we?
According to the L102 course there are seven ways to control light:
  1. Varying the position - previously discussed
  2. Varying the Apparent Size of the Light Source - previously discussed
  3. Altering the Relative Intensity (i.e. Balancing) - We are here! 
  4. Restricting Light
  5. Refraction and Reflection
  6. Altering the Color
  7. Time
What's been learned?
I'll keep this list condensed to what has been learned about balancing light.
  1. By altering the aperture we lighten/darken both the ambient and flash exposures (the whole scene)
  2. Altering the shutter speed lighten/darkens only the ambient exposure. Think of flash as instantaneous, it does not care about how long the shutter is open (as long as you are working within the max. sync speed).
  3. To alter the flash-lit area and not the ambient light you have to do a little dance;
                        i.     The ambient light cares about both the aperture and the shutter speed while the flash only cares about the aperture, so to alter the flash and not the ambient you need to adjust the aperture to the desired setting and then compensate the shutter speed the equal and opposite amount.

Simple, right?  Well, maybe an example might help.  Say you were shooting a couple maracas (see below) at f/4 at a shutter speed of 1/25 but the flash is too bright.  You have a couple options.  You could walk over to the flash and manually reduce its power, you could move the flash away from the subject, or you could control it all from inside your camera. 

To control it in-camera you can stop down the aperture, say to f/5.6 (1-stop, 3 clicks on your camera). Now the whole scene darkened so you need to bump up the ambient by slowing down the shutter speed by an equal amount, 1-stop, which in this case would be 1/13.

Photo on the left was taken at 1/25 @ f/4, photo on the right was taken at 1/13 @ f/5.6.  This isn't the best example but you can see that the ambient exposure remains the same in both photos.  The easiest way to tell is by looking at the specular highlights caused by a window in the foreground (the big ones are caused by the flash, but there are smaller ones just to the left it them).  These aren't changing because the ambient exposure is constant.
1/25 @ f/4 = 1/13 @ f/5.6, simple, if try it and practice.  To make it easier sometimes I just count clicks, 3 clicks this way (1-stop, on my camera) means I have to do 3 clicks the other way.  To be honest, I just brought my camera out to make sure I got the stops named correctly.  The absolute numbers don’t really matter all that much to me; the balance between the ambient and flash is what matters.  When I first read that in the L102 course I thought, “Dude, you’re crazy!” but after working through this course I realized that it’s true, and quite liberating.

The Assignment
As I stated above, I am pumped for this assignment.  David Hobby (a.k.a. The Strobist), author of the blog (which includes the Lighting 102 course) has tens of thousands of readers, maybe more, and he aims to mobilize this mass of humanity into an army of well-doers.  The framework of the assignment is simple; photograph someone in mixed ambient/flash light using the techniques that we’ve learned.  The special part, taking inspiration from his friends’ project the Thank You Calendar, is to “produce a photo that makes a difference to someone.”  The Thank You Calendar was a 2008 project to benefit soldiers and veterans in residence at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

To borrow a line from Marty McFly, “Whoa.  This is heavy, Doc.”  Sure, this whole time I’ve been working through this course I’ve been photographing my family or others, even did a Christmas card shoot for my brother and sister-in-law, but making a difference to someone?  I’m sure I have, but that was never the actual goal when I got the camera out of the bag.  The goal typically is to just, “get some good shots”.  I’ve definitely thought of using one of my previous “sessions” as the focus for this assignment but I’ve decided to make this as special as I can.

Recently I’ve been asked to take photos of my friends’ 1-month old baby.  Go big or go home, right?  This family isn’t “special” in any societal “special” way, but they are special to me.  They are a wonderful family that I’ve known for quite some time.  To build on the pressure, I don’t believe that they have done a photo shoot with an actual professional so this will be the baby’s “first photo shoot”.  

Oh dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into!

To explain that last thought a bit you first need to realize that I believe that photos of someone’s children (I don’t have any of my own) and even photos of yourself as a child are pretty important.  Whether they hang in a living room, sit on a desk or lay in an album that hasn’t opened in 20 years, they are special.  They capture a moment in time that you can ever return to (unless of course you are Marty from above).  I have yet to experience a mother looking through an old photo album and not see her shed a tear.  They are powerful, so I’m taking a bit of responsibility into this shoot.  I do not want to be remembered as the guy that ruined this kid’s first shoot.

Secondly, I’m not so much of a “baby” person.  I love being an uncle!  Give me that kid after they are about a year old and we will have a blast, but babies?  I wouldn’t go as far as to call is a phobia but…it’s something.  Toddlers are pretty tough to break.  In all reality they can take a bit more punishment than I can.  I’ve seen kids fall down on their knees and get back up like nothing happened.  If I fell straight down on my knees, unless I was on a trampoline, someone’s gonna have to help me up, that hurts.  But babies, especially before they can hold up their own heads’... I feel like I’m holding a slinky, w-whoa-Whoa.  I always see headlines in my head, “Man who held baby wrong now in custody”, “Study finds that the majority of politicians did not have their heads’ properly supported as babies”.  “…and then my poor meatball, rolled right out the door.”

How about this plan, you hold the baby, I’ll take the photo.

Check back in a week or so to see how things turned out.  Until then remember, you don't get better by leaving the camera in the bag.

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