Project 2016

By Roger (7 February 2016)

We've talked, in the past, about how defining a project can help you grow as a photographer. I spent a couple of years traveling to Civil War re-enactments to mark the sesquicentennial. I made thousands of photographs, in a wide variety of conditions; I met many new people; and I learned quite a bit about my camera and post-processing. It was worth every minute I spent on it. In February 2015, Mark started his project on vineyards. (You can find his post here.) In short, we like to have active projects we're working.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talked into doing a 52 week challenge. You must take and post a photo every week. The moderator was pushing for a 365 day challenge, in which you post a photo every day for a year. (It's actually a 366 in 2016.) I didn't want to commit to that, but you can find many photos from the pool, on Flickr, here. There are, currently, 144 participants, and most have said they intend to do the 365.

You can still join the group, and it's free. You will need a Flickr account (also free). You can use any kind of camera, and your photo can be as simple as part of your life that day or week. There is no expectation of a weekly masterpiece. If you already have an account, just join the group, you'll be welcomed.

I know what many of you are thinking – “I don't want that kind of pressure.” Yeah, that was my first excuse to Jenny Stein, the organizer, too. My next excuse was that it was already near the end of January, and I didn't want to start late. She pushed that one aside, as well. There is no calendar requirement, either. (Sigh.) I could have kept coming up with excuses, but it was really pointless. Even without any kind of project, there is rarely a week that goes by where I don't make a photo. Why would posting it be so bad? Again, there is no expectation, beyond sharing with others in the group.

I have no particular theme for my weekly photos. My intent is to try new (for me) subject matter and experiment more. There will be be some travel and people, of course, but I'll try to overlap there, too. For example, my post for this week was from my granddaughter's birthday party. This is certainly no masterpiece, but it involved family photography with trying something different than my normal approach..

Party motion blur

The kids were running around, as they do. The party room was too dark for no flash, but a flash completely killed the mood and the wild lighting effects. Luckily, my family is accustomed to my strange requests. I had the birthday girl stand and twirl her light wand. I used rear curtain sync (the flash goes off at the end of exposure) and a very slow shutter speed. The sensor records the background, allowing the blur of the wand to record to the sensor. The flash (set on very low power) releases its light at the end of the exposure, which records Grace and keeps her from blurring. Just a little fun for the kids, who liked the blurred shots much more than my pictures of the actual party and the candids I made.

You can follow my 52 week challenge (here), and comments are always welcomed. But that won't help you move your photography forward, so consider joining the group or starting your own. You'll have more fun with that than thinking up your own excuses on why you can't do it.

Home for the Holidays-Making a CD Cover

By Mark

It has been a month since Roger and I have had a chance to write and post a blog.  We have been in the midst of corporate transition and have been pretty overwhelmed.  Despite that, we have managed to stay busy with some photography projects.  One that I got to work on was an opportunity to help out a very talented musician surprise her family and friends with a Christmas CD.  The good news is that you can get your own copy of the CD for yourself at

She needed a photo for a CD cover with a nice Christmas background and asked if I could help.  We started with a basic photoshoot.  I asked her to bring a couple of outfits in order to give us more options later.  I didn’t actually have an appropriate background but I knew we could create one later to meet her requirements.  I figured that I could just use the background of my unfinished basement insulation—turned out to have not been my best decision.  The photography was pretty simple.  I set the camera on f/8 and ISO 100.  I was using my 70-200 zoom lens.  It stayed right around the 85mm focal length, which is why Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4 is one of the premier portrait lenses.   We used a two flash set up.  One main one in front with my 60” soft box and the second one behind her right shoulder in order to create a nice rim/hair lighting effect.   Both units were set up with Pocket Wizards for control.   We wound up with the main light at about 50% power and the back light at about 15%. 

I’ve known Amy and her husband for quite a while, but she somehow has not aged much at all, so we got a good selection of shots to choose from.

My processing plan was intended to be pretty straightforward, but it proved challenging in two areas. I needed to:

1.       Perform general image wide adjustments

2.       Apply a minimal level of skin retouching

3.       Extract her from the background

4.       Replace the background with a better one and then ensure that it looked realistic.

I’m going to break the process up into two blogs to provide some details.

For any photo job where color control is important, which should be all of them, I began by having Amy hold my X-rite color checker.  When I started processing I would use that to set up a custom white balance profile for all the images in the set. 

More of a mug shot than a good photo--Sorry Amy!   I told her she didn't need to smile for this one.

More of a mug shot than a good photo--Sorry Amy!   I told her she didn't need to smile for this one.

I did a preliminary select from each pose and outfit to weed out any bad ones—only one with eyes closed.  I then found the best ones and did normal adjustments—mostly opening up the shadows a little bit and applying sharpening to the RAW images. 

I have several applications which are specifically designed to help do portrait retouching.  Typically, ladies skin gets “softened” a little bit, the eyes brightened as well as the teeth.  I actually ran the images through all three of my tools separately in order to compare the results.   I have OnOne Perfect 10, Nik and my newest one, Perfectly Clear.   I was impressed by the results from the last one especially.  

The images just looked better, but it was very difficult to see what was actually different.  At this point, I had 4 very nice images which I sent to Amy for her selection.

All that selection and  preliminary processing hadn’t taken that long, but are an important step before you send anything to a “client” even if they are a good friend.  You never want to show a bad image.  When she made her selection, the real fun and work started.  You can read about that next time. 

A Photo Boooooth

By Mark

Well my wife decided that we needed to have a Halloween party. As always, she was right. Every square inch of the house was decorated in a creepy, spooky, Halloween fashion.

One of the ideas we came up with was to set up a photo booth to try and capture the cool costumes of our guests.

I made the suggestion to get a Halloween backdrop and, surprisingly enough; she agreed.

There are lots of sources for backdrops on the internet. I just went through Amazon (shameless plug you should use the link on our blog) to find one we both liked. Of course, that one was sold out and I had to go with our second choice. 

I have long been looking at getting a backdrop support system because it provides a lot of flexibility for more creative photo shoots.

These backdrops fit on standardized sets of stands and a cross bar which set up quickly and can be done by only one person.

I do not have continuous lights so I knew I would need to set up the flashes. Most importantly I wanted to be sure there were no harsh shadows on the background so I used a second light first to wash the backdrop.  I have a set of pocket wizard remote transceivers which fit onto the flash units and onto the camera. You can control the power level of the flashes remotely and independently. I set up the camera on a tripod and focused the lens in manual mode so that the autofocus wouldn’t continually try to readjust. I put tape on the floor to show people where to stand and that assured they would be in focus for the photos. 

I knew that I did not need a lot of light on the backdrop, so I had the power level set at -2 stops as a starting point. I shot a few test shots to see how this worked. Here is a diagram of how the camera and the lights were set up.  I discovered that -2 was too dark so I kept adjusting it and shooting it and would up at -1 1/3 stops. 

Now I could move on to the main light. I used my large 5 ft octagonal soft box to create very soft light on the subjects. I positioned the light off to the side and as high up as possible to make the shadows interesting.  I used my volunteer model, Sarah, to test my lighting. When I was happy with it, I then proceeded to set up the remote control.

I purchased a more capable Vello remote for the camera at Photoshop World. It allows you to select the time delay for your self-portraits. I calculated that 10 seconds would give folks enough time to press the button and then get into position. Finally, I knew that people would like to see their pictures in case they needed to take additional ones that they liked better.

I set up my laptop with Lightroom open and hooked up the tethering capability directly from the camera to the screen. When you pressed the shutter the images were directly transferred into a LR collection and they were visible with the normal development presets already applied. One of the things I learned was that on Nikon cameras, when you are shooting in tethered mode, it does not also write the images to the memory card simultaneously. You need to insure the system is working properly or you will lose your images.

As it turned out, I ended up shooting the pictures myself, and not making the guests follow the simple and clear instructions I had taped to the computer stand. It was just more fun watching the people and interacting with them to get more relaxed poses. 

Each group had a crowd of spectators cheering them on. Toward the end of the evening, some of our guests wanted to take group shots. They were a lot of fun, but because of the dimensions of the space I cut off an elbow or two on the edges of the frame or had part of our basement in the shots. 

Additionally, I should have increased the depth of field because some of the people who moved into the far foreground became a little bit soft in focus. It provided a good learning opportunity for me, and people seemed to really enjoy their photos. We are already looking for a backdrop for the annual Christmas bash in December. 

Lighting on the Road

By Roger (14 Sep 2014)

When you’re photographing people outside, without any lighting equipment, you need to pay attention to what the light from the sun is doing to your subjects. OK, actually, you always need to do that, regardless of the subject, but, go with me on the sun and people thing.

This week, I’m goofing off in Canada for a few days, visiting family and friends and learning the proper time to add an “Eh?” at the end of my sentences. All of the sudden, this cute baby (I know, that’s redundant) comes into my viewfinder, and I don’t have any lighting equipment with me. There’s a nice, late afternoon sun outside, so we decide to put that to some good use to light this cherub. This may happen to you, some day, so how do you handle it? Let’s demonstrate some courses of action and figure out what I think works best. As always, there are exceptions to what my favorite “rules” are in this situation. You decide what will work best for your model.

For some reason, most beginning photographers put the sun behind themselves. This is rarely the right thing to do. It lights up the faces and gets rid of shadows, but that leads to a flat, frontal light and anguished, squinty faces. Ryann – she’s the short one in this family – gives me the appropriate face for this kind of lighting. Yeah, she can’t talk, yet, but her expression says, “This yokel is doing it all wrong.”

Don't put the sun in your models' faces

Don't put the sun in your models' faces

If we change their position so the sun is coming from the side, we get better light. The models’ eyes are no longer squinting into the sun. Go between this photo and the first, and you can see their body language is much more relaxed. Dad has a hot spot on his face that I don’t like, but the highlights are not blown out. I can correct that in post-processing, but the goal is always to get it right in camera.

Light from side is better

Light from side is better

For me, the best solution is to put the models between my camera and the sun. This keeps the sun out of their eyes and puts a nice rim light around their hair. If I was carrying one of my reflectors on this trip, I could use that to bounce some fill light back at them. Even without the reflector, you can see how much better this lighting solution turned out.

I like this lighting the most

I like this lighting the most

For your own safety, always include a photo with Nona

For your own safety, always include a photo with Nona

These are not the only solutions, of course. You have probably heard of people looking for some open shade to block out the bright sun.  This is another option that can work well, especially for these types of “capture-the-moment” shots. However, open shade usually gives you another version of flat (uninteresting?) light. Reflectors are useful here, as well, to put in some shadowing and give more interest to your photo.

In the next two shots, I got some fill light from below, from the patio, and from the side, bouncing off the house. Remember, you don’t need an official photographer’s reflector to put fill light into a scene. You can use towels, shirts, or anything handy to bounce some light into the scene.

Open shade, with light bouncing into the scene

Open shade, with light bouncing into the scene

Unless you are doing a planned photo session, you want to keep things quick, especially with little ones. We knocked out these photos in less than 10 minutes. Most people are happy to cooperate with you when you keep it short.

This is on the road editing (my travel workflow description is here, if you didn’t see it), so I’ll make some changes to the final images when I return home. For now, it’s time to have some tourist fun and head for Niagara Falls at sunset. There may be some photos there, too.


Don't forget to sign up for the 11 October Worldwide Photowalk here. You can join Mark and I, in Harpers Ferry, WV, at 0930, beginning at the Amtrak station. You can sign up for our walk here. We hope to see you there.