Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Portraiture How-to - A Really Black Background

On a previous post, I said that I was inspired by some of the great photos that were shot against a really black background. An example would a set of great images made by Yousuf Karsh. I was greatly fascinated by that. So, I decided to do it myself and it proved to be a very nice exercise and learning experience. After I have practiced with the wife's stuffed toy, I proceeded with making a portrait of the wife herself.

This was my set up:

I don't have a studio yet, but that doesn't mean that I couldn't come up with decent images. As made obvious in Rick Sammon and Vered Koshlano's book Studio and Location Lighting Secrets, "You don't have to use thousands of dollars of studio gear to get professional quality results..." That had been my mantra ever since I read that book. And also, not having a real studio is forcing me to be more creative in getting my shots and made me focus more on how to get the shot that I want!

Anyway, back to the shot...

I used a Canon 7D, an off-camera speedlite and a black reflector. The black reflector was used so as to subtract light that will go to the subject. I don't have an "official" snoot, so I used a pot holder, secured by a rubber band to prevent the light from spilling towards the background. White balance was corrected using the xrite color checker passport and I used a black poster board as background. The aperture was set at f/1.8 and the shutter speed was set at 1/250s - the speedlite's sync speed.

I used a black reflector because I really wanted an f/1.8 aperture to get a shallow depth-of-field and the only way I could have compensated for that was to use a faster shutter speed. But the shutter speed won't go any faster than 1/250 and if I used a white reflector, then I wouldn't have achieved the effect that I wanted for my shot.

The flash was fired towards the black reflector that I held right in front of me - I was holding the camera with my right hand, the reflector with my left hand. The light that was reflected off the latter was a nice even lighting and that was used to light up the wife's portrait.

Note that the ambient light supplied by the ceiling lamp, as seen from the shot above, had been constant all throughout the shoot. The fast shutter speed was enough to black out the image and enabled me to isolate the light, coming from the speedlite, to illuminate my subject.

This is the shot:

What one can do with just one speedlite! I am very happy with the result that I got. Next up, I would like to use another speedlite to separate my subject from the background. But that will be for another blog post. :)

Equipment used for this shot:
(My review of Rick Sammon and Vered Koshlano's book can be found here.)

[Update: added the nifty-fifty EF 50mm f/1.8 lens to the list.]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Making the Background Really Black - Photography How-to

The teachers in my photography class always show the students sample pictures from great photographers. In one of the books, I was greatly fascinated by the portraits that have really black backgrounds. Having a really white background, I believe, is easy enough - just point a speedlite on the background and increase its power - but I felt that making the background really black would prove to be a difficult undertaking.

So, I challenged myself to make a portrait with a really black background. I would commission the wife to be my model but I don't want her to suffer while I am figuring out how to make it work. So, for the initial undertaking, I employed the services of the wife's stuff toy.

You may have already seen him in my review of the Lumiquest ProMax System (link of said review).

But first, here is my set up.

Any place can be a studio.

That is our dining table and I used poster boards to serve as "floor", background, and reflector. The ambient light you see here is constant all through out the shoot. The camera is set on Manual and I chose to put the speedlite off camera. The white poster board on camera right served as a reflector to bring some of the light back to my subject. Also, I used a black pot holder (!) to serve as snoot for the speedlite - I didn't want the light to spill towards the background and since I don't have an "official" snoot yet, I had to be creative in preventing the light to go where I don't want it to.

f/11, 1/100s, ISO100

The first shot I took was a mild success. I was able to get a good shot but the background is still a bit grey. So, I set a faster shutter speed to 1/250s. This, by the way, is the sync speed for the Canon 430 EX II speedlite.

With the new settings, I was successful in making the background really black! So, why is this set up successful?

The snoot prevented the light from going towards the background. Also, since the aperture is very small and the shutter speed very fast, if there is no light coming from the flash, then the picture would be completely black despite the light coming from the overhead light source. The key points are making everything black but lighting up only the subject. You can see the results on the two pictures below.

f/11, 1/250s, ISO100

f/11, 1/250s, ISO100

Goes to show that, one, you can achieve a lot by actually doing photography and, two, you really don't need a studio to get the shot that you want - you just need to be creative in making the it.

I am happy that I was able to get the shot that I wanted. It brings about a great amount of accomplishment. Next up would be using the knowledge that I gained from here applied to a person. :)

Equipment used to get this shot:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review of the Lumiquest ProMax System

One of the most important things I have learned in my two years of (DSLR) photography is this: always bounce the light. Before, I have always used the flash on my camera as is - it produced a lot of shadows, the nose and forehead of my subjects always blow out and the picture produced is flat out, well, flat. The flash on point-and-shoot cameras made it all the worse with its tiny flash.

So, as long as there is a wall, I bounce my speedlite away from my subjects. I don't usually bounce my speedlite on ceilings because, though that will greatly diffuse the light, it can produce the "raccoon effect" (where there are shadows underneath the eyes of the subjects). So I always proceed with great caution whenever I bounce the light towards the ceiling. (Also, I make sure that the wall I am bouncing my light against is white or off-white, or else the reflected light will create a havoc on your pictures color-wise.)

The problem arises when there is nothing to bounce off, like when I am outdoors. For these situations, I rely on my Lumiquest ProMax system.

The package includes the Lumiquest 80-20, a white, silver and gold bounce cards, plus a diffuser. Everything's packaged in the provided sleeve that is of good quality material and construction. There is a self-adhesing velcro included but I am not very fond of that.

What you do is put the Lumiquest 80-20 on your speedlite. The reason for the name is that 80% of the light will go up through the holes while 20% will be reflected back to the subject. The upward-bound light will serve as the ceiling bounce, but since there is 20% going towards the subject, the raccoon eyes will be eliminated.

If there is no ceiling, like when you are outside, you can use one of the inserts which attaches to the 80-20 via velcro. You can choose whichever bounce card you want, though I prefer to use the gold velcro when outdoors to give my subjects a warm complexion.

Finally, the diffuser will make the light softer further improving the quality of the light.

The problem with flash photography, used without caution, is that the flash tends to blow up spots on a subjects face. It also brings shadows into the picture which could mean a bad thing. (Of course the case would be different if you purposely want the picture to have shadows.) So what I recommend is bouncing the light. For this purpose, the Lumiquest ProMax is a very big help.

Note that the Lumiquest Cinch Strap is not yet included when you purchase the system. This is a big negative in my opinion. I'd like to shy away from sticking things on my camera gear as much as I can.

Highly Recommended.

You can buy the Lumiquest ProMax as a system or you can buy the parts individually:
Some sample shots using the Lumiquest ProMax. The shots with the straight flash were taken with -2 flash exposure compensation. The rest are taken with -1 flash exposure compensation. All shots were taken with the camera set on Manual with aperture of f/4, shutter speed at 1/250s, ISO100. The Canon 7D was used with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens.

For those without Flash:
Lumiquest ProMax System

Monday, November 15, 2010

Canon Powershot G12 Review

I absolutely love my Canon Eos cameras. Most of the time, I have a camera and a speedlite in my bag. But, there are times when a full-pledged DSLR is not very convenient, like when the wife and I buy our groceries, when I want to travel light, or when a compact camera is more practical - street photography anyone?

For those times, a compact camera will do the trick. Enter the Canon Powershot G12.

The G12 is a big "compact". It is not something that you can put in your jeans pocket and it can give you a hard time putting it inside the inner breast pocket of winter coats. The latter is especially true when you use the included Canon strap. If you wish for something pocketable, then you should shy away from the G12 and go for the Canon Powershot S95.

So why would anyone want to have something this big instead of a full-pledged DSLR? Well, it is still smaller than a Rebel and much smaller than an Eos. It can go to places where DSLRs are not allowed like concerts and sports arenas. And, as I've mentioned, you can put it in the inside portion of your winter coat or a small purse and have it with you all the time, albeit with a little difficulty. Remember - the best camera is the one that you have on hand.

The G12 can shoot 10 megapixel RAW files. Canon made the wise move of not increasing the pixel count of the G12 but still giving users the ability to print up to 8x10 size pictures. With a relatively bigger sensor compared to other point-and-shoots, the G12 can handle noise much better even at higher ISOs. There is a feature that I really like: setting the maximum ISO speed. So, you can just put the ISO on Auto and expect to still get crisp, relatively low-noise pictures. This function is only available in P, Av, Tv and M modes.

The G12 has a swivel screen that will enable you to shoot at "awkward" positions, like really low macro shots or when you are shooting with your camera overhead - just tilt the screen and you can get a really good view of what you are shooting at.

There are controls galore for this camera. You have a dial for the ISO speed, exposure compensation and the main mode dial - you can choose the fully automatic modes or you can choose to shoot in Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual (the P, Av, Tv and M modes.). There are scene modes where you can shoot HDR, miniature effect, and a lot more. There are a lot of timed shots available - only start counting down when someone enters the shot; only start counting down when someone winks, etc. There is now 720p HD video capture, a built in ND filter, and, as aforementioned, scene modes.

With video, you cannot change the zoom nor the focus while you are recording. If you want to change any setting, you would have to stop video recording first then change the settings that you want. There is also a stitch-assist scene mode but, as the name implies, it'll just assist you during shooting. You still have to go to your computer to stitch the pictures together. Canon provided the software necessary to stitch the pictures together but it would've been nicer if the photo stitching happened in-camera. Speaking of software, as of this writing, neither Lightroom 3 nor Adobe Camera Raw, are capable of editing RAW pictures from the G12. However, there is a Lightroom 3 release candidate that can process G12 RAW pictures.

The camera takes great pictures. I couldn't believe that just two years ago, I was using a Canon Rebel XS and now there's a "point-and-shoot" that's almost as capable as that. Even at ISO 800, the picture looks great with negligible noise. Take note, though, that the sensor of the XS is still bigger than that of the G12.

The Canon G12 is proving to be a great alternative for those who do not want to tow around a full-size DSLR.

If you already own a Canon speedlite then you are in luck as this is compatible to the G12.

For a compact camera, the G12 has a lot of accessories: waterproof case, teleconverter, lens adaptor, etc.

A lot has been mentioned about the similarities of the G12 and the Canon Powershot S95 - they use the same size sensor and there is a full manual capability, though with the G12, the controls are already out in the open. Of course, as all other reviews will tell you, the S95 is pocketable while the G12 isn't. Other reviewers often tell that the G12 has an f/2.8 maximum aperture while the S95 has a maximum aperture of f/2.0. But what they do not often tell is that at the telephoto end the G12 has a maximum aperture of f/4.5 while the S95 has a maximum aperture of f/4.9. That's the kind of thing that shouldn't be left out. The smallest aperture of the G12 is f/8.

The G12 has a 5X zoom with a 35mm-sensor size equivalent of 28-140mm. With the G12, you can actually transfer the focus point, just like what you can do with DSLRs.

Is there anything I would like to change? Well, I like that there is an optical viewfinder though I find it close to useless. The 77% view is something I can live with (not, not really; not gonna lie to myself) but there is nothing there that can tell you about the settings with which you will take your photographs. There is nothing that will tell you what your aperture is, what your shutter speed is, nothing. If this is the case, then I think that, instead of the ISO speed and exposure compensation, I'd rather have dedicated dials for the shutter speed and the aperture. An electronic viewfinder for the G13? I also don't like the neck strap. Canon should have given the user a choice of converting the neck strap to a hand strap. Perhaps their rational is, since you cannot put it in your jeans pocket, then might as well hang it around your neck...

All in all, the Canon Powershot G12 is a very good alternative to a full pledged DSLR. Despite it not being pocketable, the ability to add and use accessories make up for the size. The articulating screen is a big help for awkward angle shots or if you want to have a self portrait. The dials make it very easy to make adjustments.

The Canon Powershot G12 is highly recommended!

Some sample shots by the G12:

For those without Flash:

Shots by the Canon Powershot G12

(The book feature in one of the shots is The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book by Martin Evening. It's a great book for those who want a thorough discussion of Ps Lightroom.)


Considering a bag, case and hand strap for your Canon G12? Then check out the BlackRapid Snapr. My review of that bag can be found here.


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