Nov 25, 2010

Review: Manfrotto 685B monopod

The ski-pole of champions.
[Note: Yuri Arcurs has a much better summation of the pros and cons of this great monopod here. He loves it. Can't work without it, yet still refers to it as a "piece of junk". Wow. It was his video that made me want to rush right out and buy one on the spot. I deferred on this for about 10 months, then pulled the trigger last Friday.]

The motivation for me buying a monopod was simple:
  • Wedding.
  • In a church.
  • No flash allowed.
  • Shoot that must not fail.
  • An authority I was not interested in crossing.
  • Bye bye SB-800s.
Sounded do-able though; and since I have my super-sensitive—practically night-vision—D700, I should have no problem doing handheld, right? Wrong.

A quick scouting expedition to the church (around the same time of day the ceremony was to take place) confirmed all my worst fears. Even at ISO 1600, with a 50mm f/1.4 lens shooting wide open, I was destined to be dragging shutter longer than 1/30th.

Um, no thanks.

Also... not a big fan of shooting wide open on any lens because of the haziness that usually results. A tripod was completely out of the question, since, as the only shooter, I needed to move around a lot. So I knew exactly what I needed wanted to buy. The only reason I picked the 685B was the quick height adjustment possible with the grip. In a studio, you have all the time in the world to adjust height with those silly locking levers, but a wedding ceremony is no time to fiddle around and lose shots. [Near as I can tell, there is no competition for this style of monopod.]

I still ended up pushing my luck on the shutter speed; I reverted to ISO 3200 and 6400 a couple of times; but in the end, I know I got the best shots possible, because of this monopod.

  • Easy (and silent) height adjustment. 
  • Comforting solidness and weight.
  • Foot pedal that holds down the base as you extend the length.

  • "Childproof" locking trigger that has to be pressed with your pinky before the grip unlocks. Seriously, who needs this?
  • Rubber foot is begging to fall off. Get some gaff tape on this quick.
  • Price! Holy moly that's a lot to pay for an expandable walking stick.

Oh, by the way, wedding guests... When a man or woman of God specifically asks for no flash photography, and you don't know how to turn off the flash on your point and shoot, just put it down. Please.

Oh, and here's something I absolutely didn't count on: when the guests predictably ignored the whole "no flash" thing, they often ended up slapping a nice fat red spot on the bride with their focus-assist light.
Thanks for that.

Nov 1, 2010

Charitable to whom?

Okay. Here's where being a pessimist is pretty easy. GE has a green thing going on right now, called Ecomagination . If you upload an enviro-type photo to their group on Flickr , they "donate" some clean energy to people who need it.

Sure sounds cool and all greeny-like. Think I'll check it out.
(Here's where the overwhelming whiff of "bad idea" comes into play.)

(It's hard to read that, but here's what it says...)

By authorizing this link, you'll allow Ecomagination uploader to:
  • Access your Flickr account (including private content)
    Upload, Edit, and Replace photos and videos in your account 
    Interact with other members' photos and videos (comment, add notes, favorite)

Umm... are you kidding?
By the way, here are the terms of their generosity: hereby irrevocably grant to GE the unlimited, non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable, sublicensable, assignable, royalty free right to use, redact, republish, modify, crop, adapt, edit, copy, create derivative works of, perform, distribute or otherwise modify your Photograph including any intellectual property contained therein, together with your name, Flickr user name (if applicable),  image, likeness and identity of your hometown, in advertising and/or promotional materials for GE, in any medium now known or hereinafter developed (collectively, “GE Advertising”) in perpetuity, without payment or compensation to you, and without seeking any further approval from you.
Got that? Give us your photo (forever) and we'll donate some clean electricity to needy families. 
Trust us.

Oct 28, 2010


(originally appears in Chill Magazine, available wherever you see people cashing in empties at 9AM.)

Thanksgiving – T-Day – it’s the home opener of a season of gluttony. It begins here, morphs into a month long Halloween sugar-rush, then straight into a half dozen Hannukwanzmas Parties, culminating in the Christmas Crisco Carb-Fest. Thank God our shorts have been put away so we can start rocking the stain-free sans-a-belt slacks.

According to our government, Thanksgiving must occur on "the second Monday of October"—it was proclaimed in parliament, for cryin' out loud. Now, I don't want to be that guy, but mandating when citizens ought to be thankful kinda defeats the whole humility thing. It's like forcing your son to write a note to Gam Gam to show appreciation for that sweater he hates. Also, if Ottawa wanted to get us out of debt, they would well consider the mountain of sales tax they're neglecting when stores are closed on the very day we want to shop ourselves thin. 

And what's with Monday, anyway? I've never bunked in the House of Commons, but in the "House of Jeremy", Sunday is for giving thanks... Monday is for avoiding the kitchen and making rash promises about your Body Mass Index. Clearly this holiday was ill-conceived.

But at least the Canadian version makes sense—if only from an agricultural perspective. Think about it... if Americans are finally getting around to celebrating harvest four weeks shy of Christmas, you have to wonder about those global warming trends.

So let's give thanks, Canada. You don't have to be religious to appreciate the fortune we are bestowed with. We're living in a country where the lowest hourly wage—one hour of scraping gum off theatre seats, for example—can easily buy a Baconator combo with a Frosty for dessert. Heck, even a Jays fan could find a reason to give thanks in October. (Actually, I'm still doing the math on that, but your suggestions are welcome.) 

The point is, as crappy as life gets, we live in a country where it is not only possible, but expected that we download porn in a coffee shop while watching a pirated copy of Saw XIV on an iPad; all the while, studiously avoiding eye-contact with the cashier. There are countries where "WiFi" in a restaurant stands for "With Fire".

So with all this freedom at our disposal, what do we usually do to give thanks? We lock ourselves in a steam-filled bungalow, repeating the same menu as every other year, with people so cherished in our lives that we tolerate their presence a grand total of twice a year, that's what. We further savour the concept of freedom by carving up a sumo-sized fowl that had the outrageous fortune of being raised on a "free" range farm. Hey farmer-dude, Turkey Nation salutes you on your unparalleled benevolence!

I don't know about you, but at my aunt's you get both kinds of food: simple and complex carbs. Gravy is considered a vegetable. There's no touch football in the backyard, but when you consider the very un-athletic nature of the meal, it's funny how "CFL" the kitchen gets at crunch time. Women are organized by food group—running back and forth like offensive linemen, faking handoffs of Tupperware and passing dinner rolls. It can get pretty intense—especially if two women bring the same thing. Even Aunt Stella, who only contributes one tin of No Frills "cranberry" sauce, will start mouthing off like Gordon Ramsay with Tourettes. Then there's Dad, quarterbacking the bird, and shooing nephews away with his Hamilton Beach buzzing at top speed. The smartest place to be—if you can't snag a nap under the coats—is either watching the Thanksgiving Day Classic in the den, or out in the garage with a cold one. Better yet, bring the TV 'round the back.

So here's my two cents on dinner, because no one can stay mad at a bowl of heart-attack potatoes: compliment the chefs, hug your aunts, do the dishes; and at some point, raise a toast—preferably one that doesn't start with "Zigga zagga, zigga zagga..." It's a small price to pay for a great meal, with great people, in a great country.

Just one quick thought... there are a whole bunch of folks—not far from where you live—who are thankful on the days they have a roof over their heads. It probably wouldn't kill you to pack a few turkey sandwiches on Monday, and drop them and a few bucks at your local homeless shelter. Giving thanks is nice. Giving a bit of yourself is better. God bless, and don't hog all the stuffing.

Oct 25, 2010

V-Flats and Big, Soft Lighting

Quick one here.

Just did a test of a lighting setup I plan to use for shooting a friend of mine. I've been doing it in my head for weeks now, so I set it up quickly while the kids were watching TV and couldn't bug me. The flats are opened up, so you can see the SB-600s.
I already had the V-flats (taped together foam core) which are easy, cheap and very useful. When you get them right close to the subject, they bathe the person in big, soft light. As a bonus, they self-gobo the speedlights.

The little slab of foam core in back made a down and dirty white backdrop (illuminated by an SB-800) that had to be remedied in PS. Since the goggles are the main thing here, the glass needed a huge (apparent) light source to give a nice, full reflection. Mission accomplished!
What would I do differently?

  • Put the flats up higher (they don't need to light the ground, doofus).
  • Tape up a larger backdrop.
  • Use ring flash. I like the grey b/g here better than the blown-out white shown below, and a ring flash would give a nice shadow in grey.

Most importantly, I would give my kids whatever they drank from the medicine cabinet that day, which made them willing to pose for me.

All the best!

Sep 23, 2010

Interior Design for Men

[As seen in this month's CHILL magazine. Available at any Ontario beer store with a magazine rack.]

Why would a guy spend a good chunk of his hard-earned dough just to jazz up his crib? Well, as a man who’s been married nine years, the truth is, I haven’t had to make aesthetic decisions for, oh... about nine years. (The fact that I use words like “dough”, “jazz” and “crib” should also tell you that you might be better off asking Grandpa Simpson.)

But, think about it. Why do guys do anything? Usually, to increase the odds of waking up with someone other than Derringer in the Morning. If you’ve mastered the basics of clothing, hygiene and not making women want to shut your trap with a miter clamp, you may want to take a stab at burnishing that 10’x 10’ chick-repelling hovel you call an apartment. You know why George Clooney could get away with that spartan crash-pad in Up In The Air? It’s because he’s George Clooney. You—as it turns out—are not. So, let’s start from the ground up...

Blast your triceps while diminishing your ego.

Three words: Dirty floors bad. If it’s inherently dangerous for your date to walk barefoot in your apartment, she ain’t takin’ off anything else, Shrek. So, if you don’t have carpet, make sure you’ve at least got a working mop. And, provided you’re not dating Pamela Anderson (sorry, was I laughing?) you might think about grabbing some kind of rug—Ikea’s Liönskiin is affordable. Anything stylish to throw in front of the fire / radiator / oil drum, where you can both enjoy...

...your killer art collection!  Posters don’t have to involve the Delta Tau guys, or various grades of hot sauce to make an impression. 

I think the words were reversed.
There is perfectly viable art out there that’s man enough for your bros, while making you appear semi-intellectual to the ladies. 

Ignore the clichéd stuff like Starry Night and Bulldog with a Busted Flush, but do go retro. Bonus points for anything foreign—especially obscure art films. Russian might seem cool, but every word looks like “Kaopectate”, and you should avoid anything from Germany, circa 1933-1945. My advice? Go French or Italian, and make sure you get the words translated, because you will be asked. 

Limited budget? Hey, less is more. Remember why Europe appealed to Vincent Vega? It’s the “little things”. Example? You know those Petro Canada towels in your bathroom? By all means keep them as shammies for your ‘92 Cavalier. But when a fine guest arrives, even for coffee, you’re going to quietly pull out the good stuff. Soft, plush terry cloth—white as a Rush concert—that will pamper her hands and face while she’s deciding whether or not to stay over.

So simple, even Beavis can use it.
For the same reason, pay attention to your bed sheets. Say you’re innocently showing her your complete Power Rangers Pog collection while she sits on the edge of your bed. If the only thing running through her mind is, “Dear God, please don’t let me get the pneumonic plague from this filthy, queen-sized sheet of grit,” how likely is it that she’s unpacking her toothbrush?

So let’s tally your design acumen with a little quiz. Picture your current abode, and grade yourself accordingly.

You have:
A room divider made of Japanese paper.
A room divider made of empty two-fours and fruit flies.

Scented candles. (+5)
Scented pine trees. (-5)

John Wayne poster. (+5)
John Wayne Gacy poster. (-50)

Shag carpet. (+10)
Shaq carpet (-10)

Describe your everyday eating surface:

Hardwood table, place mat. (+20)
Card table, some poker chips. (+6)
Upside-down KFC bucket on the floor (-10)
Right-side up KFC bucket on the john (-30)

 A place in your house where three people can sit is called a:
“Chesterfield” (+10)
“Sofa” (+7)
“Couch” (+5)
“Thing you picked up off the curb that was smouldering a little” (-10)
The lighting in your bedroom is best described as:
Warm, subdued, and easily dimmed. (20)
Clean, energy efficient, yet slightly cool. (5)
Fruit cellar in Psycho. (-10)

60-80 points: Looking good, sport. Consider a zen garden?
40-60 points: Might want to snag a few issues of Real Simple.
0-40 points: Please never contact my daughter.

Jul 6, 2010


[As seen in this month's CHILL magazine. Available at any Ontario beer store that serves Olde English 800.]

"... and when he walked around the car to open the door for his girlfriend, he saw it; hanging off the door handle... A BLOODY HOOK!!!"

A hook... yeah, whatever. Did he remember ice? What about rechargeable speakers? Geeze, I thought this was supposed to be scary.

Okay, so we each have our take on the chilling campfire story; but when the sun sets at Algonquin Park, I'm more afraid of running out of Underjams than I am of vengeful camp counselors with Swiss Army limbs. Speaking of which, where have all the amputee villains gone? In my day, Dr. No, Captain Hook  and the one-armed man from The Fugitive were part of a vast pantheon of truncated psychos. In a more politically incorrect time, handicapable loners could easily do the work of five able-bodied nutjobs. By pigeon-holing twentysomething white males, we are robbing the genre of diversity. Where are the semi-transgendered vampires, the olfactorily-impaired lycanthropes. And don't get me started on the dearth of South-Asian power drill killers.

I digress. 

So here we are, knee-deep in summer, and giving serious thought to camping. Nothing else to do except ignore the hedges and concoct even more excuses to buy an iPad. Look, if you're gonna camp, I can't stop you, but let's drop some of the mystique before you pack the mosquito coils.

Myth #1: "Getting away from it all". No doubt about it, solitude and self-reliance are neglected these days—I think Thoreau said something about this in Walden, but I haven't found the DVD yet. Let's be practical. You don't need to "get away" from oxygen and water, right? So why do we feel it's somehow "noble" to abandon Blackberries, HDs and KFC Double-Downs just to prove how helpless we are in the woods? You want to backpack into Pandora with nothing but a shoelace and a shiv? Be my guest. But, remember, if you're bringing a solar-powered Clapper to turn on your Latte-foamer, you've probably missed the point.

Myth #2: Respecting the "Old Ways". Camping is supposed to help you appreciate the conveniences of modern life. After all, Laura Ingalls enjoyed her Little House without the trappings of the internet era. But if you think for a second that she wouldn't have killed Nellie Oleson in cold blood for a copy of Glee, you know as much about women as you do butter churns. The "old ways" suck. Always have, always will. When the Ingalls wanted to appreciate their conveniences, they probably celebrated "Glad-I'm-Not-Being-Burnt-At-The-Stake Week". Then when Sunday rolled around, they dug into to a hearty bowl of switchgrass in front of Pa's hand-carved, widescreen puppet-theatre.

Myth #3: "Fresh" air. Okay. Pop quiz, hot shot: I hand you two flannel shirts. One was worn in the city for a night of club-hopping and shwarmas. The other was worn for a night of standard camping. Guess which one reeks of deet and fear? Bingo.

If I can't sway you, the good news is that there's as many ways to "camp" as there are to remove body hair. It all depends on your pain threshold. At 41, I like things simple and comfortable. The only reason I need a magnifying glass to start a fire is so I can actually read the directions on the Coleman. (Why don't they just print, "After pumping enough times to pop the blister on your thumb, spin the valve anti-clockwise, twist the millimeter-long switch downward, then drive to the nearest A&W.)

The "camp" spectrum goes something like this. (Note: anyone higher than you is a wuss; anyone below, a commie granola-smoker.)

  1. Under the stars: You. A sleeping bag. And lots of things that end in "-pede"
  2. In a tent: Pillow optional. Leave the box-spring at home.
  3. In a trailer: Not exactly Survivorman, but the chemical toilet will make you homesick.
  4. In the hot tub of anyone you can pick up in town, just so you don't frighten children with your girlish shrieking.

I'm somewhere between 2 and 3, and 2 doesn't return my calls anymore. If you've ever changed a diaper during a thunder storm, while your oldest son is having a night-terror about rabid owls shredding the tent roof, you'll appreciate my interest in rudimentary plumbing and roofing.

That being said, here's some quick pointers if and when you decide to rough it:

  • Sunscreen yourself into a pasty blob of goo every morning. There's nothing worse than stoking a campfire with a sunburn that makes a Redskins fan look like Edgar Winter.
  • Party trick #1: Wanna dazzle the ladies? Make ice cream. Seriously. All you need is two Ziplock bags, milk, cream, sugar, ice and salt. Google for details.
  • If you're whizzing against a tree and you see moss, congratulations brother, you are now facing south.
  • Don't drink any local water. See above.
  • Bring canned beer. It cools way faster, and the cans can be crushed for a hassle-free load-out. Also...
  • Wasp issues? Hang a partially-filled can of beer from a tree. The little bastards fly in and drown. Use lime beer and you'll attract more wasps than a Facebook page devoted to Old Navy coupons. (Sorry, wrong WASPs.)
  • Party trick #2: backwoods "lava lamp". Fill a clear cup with soda water and a few raisins. They'll rise and fall more often than the hopes of Leafs Nation.
  • Three knots you must master: the "tautline hitch", the "Siberian hitch"... and Don Knots. Once you've nailed your Don Knots impression, you can get a laugh out of anyone older than 35.
  • Party Trick #3: If you're trying to score 'green' points, bring along some rolled oats (not the flavoured kind). Rub a big handful into your hair vigourously, then comb it all out. Voila. Oil-free coiff.
  • Forgot your pillow? Use a big bag of Doritos. It's not at all comfortable, but it will take your mind off that escaped lunatic that was last seen near your campground. Enjoy!

Jun 24, 2010

Things I did wrong on my last shoot, Vol. 3

Mission: take some punchy shots of a fuse. (Not the "honey, why is it so dark in here" kind, but the "won't that coyote ever learn" kind.)

In the course of shooting "photo booth" type images at parties, I like to go all out. I mean, why offer just formal shots, when you can throw in props and wigs?

(Okay, sometimes this goes a little overboard. )

But why use a plastic scimitar, when you can use that samurai sword that's been collecting dust in the garage since you were nineteen.

And, for that matter, why have someone holding just a samurai sword, when they could be holding... a lit bomb? I get like Bruce Willis when he's gearing up to exact his revenge on Zed.

For my next shoot, I got it into my head that I'd like someone holding a classic "bowling ball" bomb—without all the fuss something like that could cause on location. Lit bomb fuses? These days,  you can't even smoke in the parking lot at Phillip Morris.

It's not that I don't like to bend the rules sometimes, but when you're already juggling camera settings, strobes and tipsy party guests, you hardly need to throw a smoky, sparking TNT fuse into the mix.

The solution, of course, is to do it in post, and what could be easier than a slapping on a generic layer of sparks in screen mode? So, I take a trip to iStockphoto, and quickly realize that nobody has the image I'm picturing. Everything says "sparkler ". I want something that says "Acme".

DIY time. I mean, I'd much rather pay five bucks for a JPEG, but any chance to play with incendiaries and a camera? Done deal.

So, I buy a bunch of cheap fireworks from the local sleazebag (note: you can buy a "Flamebomber Nightstorm" no problem, but you can't buy fuse on its own. Umm... okay.) then hang a black velvet backdrop from some light stands in my kitchen.

Rule #1: Don't forget to remove the fuse from the ordinance.

The plan:
  • Bracket like mad, with various apertures, to see what combo works best.
  • Use battery grip and high-speed CF card to maximize shots per burn.
  • Use a tripod, macro lens, and wireless shutter-release.
  • Go manual focus.
  • Put something wide and fire-resistant on the floor.
  • Open the windows, and pray that Lysol will kill the smell.
  • Don't do this right before the G20. Whoops .

[crappy photo of set-up, taken with D700 something else]

What went right:

  1. Bracketing exposures produced some dragged shutter that emphasized smoke cloud. Neat.
  2. The always-pleasing "fuh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh" sound of Continuous High mode.
  3. Fire. Love it.
  4. Got exactly what I envisioned and then some.
What went wrong? Well, there's those small burn marks on the soon-to-be-reno'd kitchen floor. No sweat this time, but the only thing getting shot in our kitchen after August will be me, if I try this stunt again.

One thing I would do differently... that I should probably consider will absolutely do on every future shoot, time permitting?

Take a ten minute break to consider a totally new line of attack (i.e. before all the fuses are burnt). Had I done that on this shoot, I might have tried something different, namely... burn the fuse upside down.

Dang. Never got a chance to try it, but the possibilities are intriguing. The sparks would shoot in a more vertical, blowtorch manner and, as a bonus, the fuse would burn faster, as would the linoleum!

Maybe next time.

Jun 11, 2010

Fathers' Day Cheat Sheet

[As seen in this month's Chill magazine. Available wherever you buy fine stout.]

You may not like him—or even know him—but if your name isn't Anakin, you have a father out there. He's not necessarily wise, and he can't play God of War for beans, but if you tolerate the way he nods off at Thanksgiving and blames his farts on the cat, it's time to throw the man some respect. June 20th happens to be a great day of the year to reconcile male bonding with family duty.

Now, there are those of us who are fathers, and those who will be fathers. There's also a group I refer to as 'The Others'. The Others are a tribe of men who play Texas Hold 'em until three on a weeknight; sleep in late; and think Yo Gabba Gabba is a Chinese cellist who covers Ramones tunes. I'm not talking to you guys. Go buy an iPad app.

There are also those out there who are fathers but—spoiler alert—just don't know it yet. Men in this category should consider Fathers' Day a time to give their collective heads a shake. Because, if you're in any danger of unwittingly siring an offspring, consider the following a Public Service Announcement:

Dude, since you've obviously harnessed the Axe-effect, might I suggest swinging by the latex aisle the next time you visit Shoppers. The women of Canada—and all taxpayers—thank you in advance.

Now, when you think about it, it should really be called Dad's Day. I mean, any turkey-baster with motile sperm can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a Dad. 'Father' is so clinical and Victorian. A 'father' is a man who brings home coal and asks you to fetch a switch when you don't wipe you nose properly. Surely, no kid has ever said, "Thanks for the Xbox, father."

But to be called 'Dad'... that's totally different. It means you are genuinely sought after, and likely free of scandal. Maury Povich never pauses dramatically, and says, "You are the Dad." Dad's know what they are, and work hard at it. Which poses the question: how did we end up with a crappy expression like 'Deadbeat Dad'? This is an oxymoron on par with 'friendly fire' and 'stationary orbit'. I've got a news flash for you, Daddy No-bucks: If you've ever blown your kid's sneaker budget chasing an inside straight, you have as much claim to the title 'Dad' as I do to 'Rwanda's toughest vegan'.

So, assuming you are the man of honour, here is one hard truth to consider... the only people who get excited about Fathers' Day are... kids. Think about it. Your wife hasn't forgiven you for that 'Wii Fit Oprah-ciser' you got her for Mothers' Day, so she's not going to be your wingman on the sleep-in thing. Your parents only call when they need to know how to 'unfriend' someone on Facebook. And even Robin Williams on Prozac would rather hit the links than celebrate the day he got one through the posts. So buck up and consult the following when you're stumped...

Priority #1:
Keep the kids from crying...

  • If you smell burnt toast, you're not having a stroke. That will come later.
  • Depending on the age of your kids, you have macaroni-art heading your way. Just smile, and try not to inhale too much glitter.
  • If they give you a tie, put it on right away so they have one clear memory of you wearing it.
  • If they give you cologne, they're just following the playbook. (If they give you Listerine and 1000 yards of mint floss, there may actually be a hint in there.)
  • Kids eventually realize that sleeping-in is the best gift of all. This occurs near their 30th birthday.
Priority #2:
Take care of your own Dad...

  • Call him after 11. That's all he wants. And try as they might, there is still no such thing as a masculine Hallmark card.
  • Bonus Points: If your name's Patrick, tell him you took out life insurance. Good for you, son!
  • Want to get creative? Turn a cliché on its head by giving Thai, rather than a tie. (My advice? Food, not massage.)
Priority #3:
If you're a wife...
  • You know how you like a box that says DeBeer's? We like a box that says DeWalt.
  • If you promise to not bug us for 24 hours, we promise never to say, "Who's yer daddy"
And to The Others, I say, enjoy your rest. I hope life in the fast-food lane is every bit as enjoyable as I remember it to be. Do at least two of the following for the Gipper, will ya?

  • Set your alarm for 2 in the afternoon... just to see if you can make it.
  • Walk into a Walmart... then leave immediately. Savour this memory.
  • Go to a theatre and pick a movie on the spot. Too early? Grab a beer and read the paper.
  • If you're feeling especially cruel, drop by a pet store and loudly talk about the six puppies you want to buy for your daughter, "just because she's worth it".
And, finally, let's not forget those fathers who aren't with us any more. If you can spare a thought, why not offer thanks to those deserving dads who went to that great workshop in the sky (especially since you're guaranteed to get the last word for once). Just don't get carried away when giving props to your main homie. Unless Dad had the word "Ice" or "MC" in his name, there's no need to pour a malt liquor down the sewer. 

Come to think of it, that's pretty much the only place it deserves to go. I stand corrected.

Jun 10, 2010

Things I did wrong on my last shoot, Vol. 2

... or, "How I Became a Muslin Extremist".

With a charity shoot, it's usually up to you to come up with the idea and see it through. And since nobody's paying the piper, you generally get to call the tune.

So make it a jam session..

On my last shoot, what was required was a pay-per-shot "photo booth" for a large party. I figured on some formal stuff and some crazy stuff. The perfect time to stretch out a little.

Last year at Lobsterfest, I kicked the tires on a 9' white seamless, complete with shiny tileboard on the floor. Pure Arias. Definitely a classy look, but—as it turns out—impractical on location. (You can read about that set-up here.)

This year, I decided to forgo the seamless headache, and try a black muslin—no flooring. Basically, the exact opposite of last year. 90% for practicality, 10% because I wanted to try something different.

[Special thanks to Headshots in Toronto, by the way, who donated the muslin and a floor stand for the weekend. Love these guys.]

Because I already knew the location, I didn't re-scout it. I cetainly should have, but there were no surprises. (Last year I got to compete with people crowding the line of an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet. It actually worked out pretty well, but I still have nightmares involving melted butter and a slippery tileboard. Hello liability insurance.)

The new space was better in many ways, slightly worse in others. I had a little alcove right by the main entrance; a cul-du-sac with zero chance of cross-traffic. It was about seven feet across, twenty feet deep, with tons of height.

  • Right by the entrance means people notice you and remember to drop by.
  • I'll take ceiling height over any other dimension. In this case, I had height to spare for a backdrop, plus a hairlight. Hell, I probably could have snuck a hammock up there.
  • A deep space means lots of distance between the b/g and the subject. Way awesome.
  • No width means no rim lights.
  • No width means no wide group group shots. I think that's actually a "pro", come to think of it.
  • No width means people are tripping over light stands and props on their way in.
A 24"x24" softbox (SB-800) was my key light. No problem there. I set it for TTL, since I knew the light-to-subject distance would vary depending on the number of people in the shot. I wanted the key close to people for two reasons: a larger apparent light source, and less illumination of the dark grey black muslin, due to fall-off. 

Getting it right in-camera is the way to avoid aneurisms in post—especially when you're talking about 300 frames or so when it's all over.

I wanted reasonable depth of field, so I shot at f/11. I bumped the ISO up to 400 to improve my recycle time on the strobes. and set shutter for 1/200, as I recall. After that, it was all up to the lighting.

Just like exposing white seamless for the brightest (usable) whites, when you use a black backdrop, the closer you can get it to pure black, the easier it is to burn it in post if it catches some reflection. Unlike white seamless, you cannot over-darken a background. There is no inverse to lens flare.

So, I shoot a grey card...

... then promptly forget to shoot any set-up shots. Argh. (I don't know where my brain goes when I'm on location. If I were shooting on the set of Iron Man 4, with Joe McNally holding the bounce card and Scarlett Johansson manning the wind machine, I would still probably forget to take a set-up shot. Tunnel-vision, anyone?)

After chimping, I bounce the key light with a Tri-Grip taped up on the right wall—again because of width limitations.

Not using rim lights was a drag, mostly because David Hobby had just whet my appetite the day before with this post. But I still needed separation light—lots of black suits and dresses to consider. That meant: speedlight... high, and to the back. I couldn't find a clamp, so I used a light stand at its highest reach, then dropped the muslin by about 6 inches to accommodate.

For lens flare,  I gobo'd the SB-800 with a Honl snoot, sitting up top like a baseball cap. I went back to my shooting location, and made sure I wasn't getting flare. 

This was the look for most of the shoot. I locked the stobe on Manual. If I did it again, I would try a Lumiquest softbox (or two!) to get more even coverage. (I'd probably back off on the nuke factor, too.)

For only a two-light shoot, I was happy with the results, but if I could go back and do it again, I'd bring along my ringflash to fill in those eyes.

Eyes. Eyes. Eyes. It's all about the eyes.

So what went wrong? Not much, actually. I could have used more separation light on the sides and a glint of ringflash would have iced the cake nicely. My full-length shots illustrate the need for a kicker on the floor, but I generally wasn't looking for full length, anyway. (I certainly wasn't cropping for it.) Having the guests bring along some props was a life-saver, too.

What went right? Almost everything.

Everyone had a blast, and the tickle-trunk let people get creative after their formal shots. The guests were nicely lubricated after dinner, and if you're ever looking to generate a little traffic, you could do worse than having a bunch of women, dressed to the nines, shreiking about who gets the samurai sword. We raised a whack of cash for our daycare, and I stuffed my business card in as many fists as possible.

Most importantly... I didn't have to pack a fracking 8'x4' tileboard into my Hyundai at the end of the night.

The full shoot is here.

Apr 22, 2010

Things I did wrong on my last shoot.

Note: I'm thinking of making this a regular post—maybe a whole new blog. It helps me remember valuable information that I learned on the shoot, and forces me to be more ruthless on my pics, after the fact.

... besides, there's nothing I enjoy more than a photographer critiquing another photographer.

Anyway, as luck would have it, my last "shoot" was "Tae Kwon Do Belts ". This is going to be shooting fish in a barrel, because, for starters, I didn't realize when I arrived that I was shooting anything other than a few snaps of my son getting his yellow belt. You know, the cobbler's son wears no shoes... God forbid I put any effort into this.

Lesson #1: Anything worth doing, is worth doing well. A cliche for good reason.

At least I've brought my bag, which means I've got a D700, two primes (20mm, 50mm) and an SB-800, among other odds and ends. The yellow belts go first, so I get the camera out with a 50, and handhold my 800. At this point the instructor—who is also my instructor—sees the gear, and asks me, nice as can be, if I could shoot as much as possible. I'm certainly okay with this, because—who knows—maybe there's a little horse-trading to be done with him next session. Any way you slice it, it's a chance to flex.

Besides, I've seen this guy kick like, 12 feet above his head.

So now I'm running and gunning. My CLS  is set for Group A, TTL. A few test shots, and the pop-up is set at TTL for fill, plus or minus. I'm at f/5.6 with a locked shutter at 1/125 (so I don't accidentally alter it while I'm buzzing through the photos in view mode—learned that one the hard way ).

Lesson #2: Don't just bring a knife to a knife fight.  If you're going to bring a flash, bring a damn light stand. At least a Justin clamp.

Mr. Off-Camera Flash thinks he'll do fine just holding the flash up in the air, because previous run-and-guns have usually been very close to the subject—and who wants a light-stand for that? Problem is, many of the shots are from relatively far away, and once that happens, most of the off-axis effect is lost. I compensate by putting the 800 on a shoe, on the floor. This gives me a dramatic shadow on the far wall...

But truth be told, I don't  love it. Also, the low angle isn't helping anyone's face.

It's right about now that I realize a little ambient light could help me, but it's the most putrid fluorescent ever. Fortunately, I have my gels. Un-fortunately, I don't really have time to dork around with the varying shades of green, so I use a 1/2 and pray.

Lesson #3: Standardize your work-flow. There's lots of time before the shoot. There's very little time during the shoot.

Then come the group shots. What? Now I really wish I had two flashes and two stands. Hand-holding the 800 is one thing, but now I'm subconsciously married to my on-axis fill. Not such a good thing when the instructor is wearing glasses... glasses that look like they've been worn by a toddler covered in sunscreen at a Chinese buffet.

Now I'm a little panicked, because in addition to everything else, these group shots have to happen now. There's lots of kids getting churned out, and the parents are itching to get out of the gym. The result: I pay zero attention to the background, and now I have basketball hoops and windows growing out of people's heads. The reptilian part of my brain is screaming, "Fix it in post! Be a pro, and don't shuffle people around like a nervous aunt at Thanksgiving!!!"

Lesson #4: Reptilian brains are for reptiles. Take charge of the situation!

I will reiterate: no-one forced me to shoot. I was not getting paid, and was okay with that. I had friends in that room, and they'd do the same for me.

Thing is, this room was also packed with potential clients. When the business cards were requested, I was squirming at the thought of any sub-par work going up on my site. I bit my reptilian tongue, and was already firing up Lightroom in my head.

I did what I could in post: with some adjustment brushes, tweaking and vignetting. Some of the group shots were improved by adding a guilty pleasure: selective colour. (I generally avoid it like the plague—having drunk Zack Arias' Kool-Aid—but in this situation, it was begging for it.)

The mega group shots really sucked, and I can't even bear to post one here, but, all in all, it was a very "educational" shoot—the equivalent of a date who has a "great personality".

So... lots of things I would do differently, but nothing that's keeping me up at night. Next time, though... no excuses. And no glasses!

One last caveat: I was also getting my yellow belt that night. But when I walked in and saw that I was the only adult in the six o'clock session, I quickly decided that I would rather eat broken glass than do my impression of Cosmo Kramer "dominating the dojo".

All the best!