After a certain amount of hesitation, I have bit the bullet and joined Tumblr. Consider it my online scrapbook of things I like.
Makeup, Model and Concept by Victoria Penrose.
Film by A R Harvey.
Recently, myself and makeup artist Victoria Penrose decided to film a time-lapse video of her applying makeup to herself. The idea was to show the improvement that even a modest amount of makeup can produce. This was also an opportunity for me to try out a few new things.
The video was shot on a normal digital stills camera (my Canon 5DMkI) and lit entirely with studio flash. Using flash for stop-motion animation can be a rather risky affair; the light output may not be entirely consistent from frame to frame and an ugly flicker can appear on playback. Fortunately, my heavy-duty Bowens studio lights proved remarkably consistent. The images were bang-on solid. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed quite the same success with my cheaper Speedlites though...
Although Victoria did her best to maintain a consistent head position, a certain amount of movement was unavoidable. I smoothed this out two ways: First, I tracked the catch-lights in the eyes and stabilized the image based on their movement. Secondly I time-stretched the sequence and blended the extra frames.
In the above comparison, the finished result is on the left. The original, unstabilized version is on the right.
"Light graffiti" exploits long exposures and swept light sources to create luminous, otherworldly shapes. I've wanted to explore the dazzling possibilities for a long time; this shoot for electro duo Disco Damage was the perfect opportunity.
All the special effects were captured in-camera. Digital trickery was limited to skin retouching, background cleanup and overall sweetening. By doing it this way I was forced to embrace mistakes and happy accidents. No two photos are the same. Ghostly half-images, flares and broken trails betray where Laura or Kristin moved. The element of chance added variety and interest.
Each photo is captured in two stages. First is the flash component: Upon triggering the shutter a short, sharp burst of light "freezes" the scene. However, the shutter does not close. Instead it remains open for a further five seconds, enough time to "paint in" the light trails.
Most people use bicycle lights and other common battery powered sources. I wanted something a little more unique though, so I decided to build my own lights from scratch using LEDs, strip-board and numerous electronic components. I was soldering until 3am, the same morning of the shoot...
The above photo was a happy accident.
A few weeks back I was scouting canal locations for a fashion shoot. Towards the end of the day I found myself following the slow twists and turns of the Regents Canal, heading west towards Maida Vale. As soon as I entered this particular tunnel I spotted the mysterious figures up ahead. Only a few seconds remained before they reached open air. I sensed an opportunity... Quickly I lifted my camera and fired off a shot, still moving as I did so. Amazingly, the darkness of the tunnel balanced the brightness of the water's reflection, and my camera's autoexposure algorithms landed square in the middle to deliver a perfect exposure.
A second later, the moment had passed.
The outfit featured in these photos was created by Joey Bevan for the Ideal Home Show. The materials are actually household furnishings; a plastic shower curtain has been repurposed as a see-through top, and foam door-pads have been turned into decorations.
Stylised lighting effects such as lens flares require a lot of care to get right. Their character varies immensely depending on the position of the light source and the aperture. Lens construction also plays a huge role: Complicated assemblies such as zoom lenses tend to produce more intricate patterns. The best lens flares are those that exhibit an almost organic quality, rife with flaws, happy accidents and serendipity.
Most of my work is very "pop-y" - high contrast, deep colours, huge post-production... This time I wanted to do something very different.
Nina Boldt is a singer from Germany, now living in London town. One Sunday afternoon we got together and took over a friend's bedroom. For this particular shoot, I wanted to evoke a light, hazy atmosphere - like a scene from a French art-house film. Naturalism was important, but at the same time I still wanted to push the edges of reality a little. A combination of natural and artificial light would be in order.
After pushing a lot of junk to one side I gelled the windows with diffusion. On sunny days windows tend to blow out; this time though the weather was likely to be grey. I really did not want to risk seeing the street beyond - it would just be one more hassle in Photoshop. By gelling the windows I could guarantee a nice, solid block of white in the background and soften the sunlight at the same time.
Bedrooms can be tricky places to make interesting. The environment needs to be carefully arranged so that any objects that appear in the background do not detract from the overall composition. A good starting point is to clear out everything that can be easily moved. Certain items can then be reintroduced if necessary. In the above photo we added a guitar. That was it.
The last ingredient was the smoke machine. Before the shoot, I was very wary of the raw images looking too "digital" or "real". Bedrooms are very familiar places after all, and modern photographic equipment does nothing to obscure reality. In addition to opening up the lens - thereby knocking out the background - I accentuated the depth effect by hazing the room. Distant details were thereby washed out and artfully smoothed over. Nina on the other hand remained sharp and fully formed.
Indie rock band The Mars Patrol played their first gig of the year at Camden's Barfly. I caught up with them and took some backstage pictures before the show. Check out Davina's new bright red fringe!
Featured, in order of appearance: Davina (vocals), Stephen (bass), Matt (keyboards), Ross (guitar) and James (guitar).
I've been meaning to do some time-lapse work for a while now, and last weekend I headed down to Embankment bridge. Looking south one can spot Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye.
I was particularly keen to catch the dazzling motion blur of car headlights. This meant long exposures, so I set the shutter speed to half the frame interval. Conventional film and video cameras usually operate with the shutter open for half the frame.
My intervalometer was a PocketWizard MultiMax. Normally these are used for wirelessly triggering flashes, but the bells'n'whistles MultiMax can also be connected to a camera's shutter release.
The video above demonstrates four time-lapse speeds (shutter/interval): 0.4sec/0.8sec, 2sec/4sec, 4sec/6sec and 4sec/8sec. Each clip is ten seconds (250 frames at 25fps) long.
I've also added a subtle amount of "camera drift" in post. It's as though I am on the bridge holding the camera. A little movement definitely helps bring the scene to life.
I experimented with a variety of intervals, from 0.4sec to 8sec. At the fast end I encountered problems. One was that my camera - a Canon 5D MkI - had trouble writing the JPEGs to card fast enough; the memory buffer would fill up, preventing the camera from taking more shots until space became available. I worked around this by setting the JPEG size to Small, thereby reducing the amount of data that had to be saved. A small JPEG on the 5DMkI is still large enough to comfortably accomodate a 1080p HD video frame. The second problem involved the lag of the camera's mechanism. Although the shutter speed may be set to 0.2sec, additional time is required to flip the mirror up and return it to rest afterwards. With such a relatively long shutter speed, a frame interval of 0.4sec was insufficient. The camera missed every other shot.
Another motivation for this test was to put my DSLR Stills -> Video -> Web workflow through it paces. The goal was to arrive at a colour-accurate 720p HD version online, in this case using Vimeo. The full details are beyond the scope of this short blog post but needless to say, colour management was a major headache. In the film and video world, the delivery target is usually better defined. More assumptions can be made. Colour management is therefore approached rather differently, and some may say, more loosely. Final Cut Pro for example has no concept of colour management, instead relying on the operator to use monitors calibrated to a specific target. Apple Compressor also expects to receive video in a certain colour space.
Nevertheless, I spent a couple of days investigating the problem and managed to cobble together a solution. Further work is required to streamline the workflow though and test it with some proper colour cards.
For Christmas I travelled back up to my parents home in the Highlands of Scotland. It didn't actually snow at all while I was there; instead the sub-zero temperatures and still air preserved what had fallen a week or so earlier.
Lighting equipment can quickly become very heavy and cumbersome. Lately I have been assembling a cutdown, lightweight location lighting kit which I can carry by myself on public transport.
I begin this post with a look at the drawbacks of using bulky, mains-powered monoblocs. Fortunately there are several battery-powered alternatives, although many carry a hefty price tag. My lightweight location kit is built upon Canon's flagship Speedlite, the 580EXII. Although it offers great bang-per-buck, there are shortcomings. I investigate these in the latter half, asking the question 'How Good is "Good Enough"'?
Until now my main lighting kit has revolved around three Bowens Gemini 500 monoblocs. These are good quality, mid-range strobes with a wide variety of light shaping accessories. If I lack a particular reflector or require an additional light, I simply phone up my local Calumet and hire what I need.
Monoblocs though have two big drawbacks: First, they require a mains power supply. Secondly they are big and heavy - each unit incorporates its own mains transformer. On location though, especially when outdoors in the middle of nowhere, a wall socket may be hard to come by. What then? Petrol generator is one option. But does one really want to lug all that equipment over stream and down dale?
Clearly my studio lights were built for indoor use only. Trying to remove them from their intended environment is just asking for trouble. Let's take a step back and rethink this.
I am wanting something light and compact - something I can carry in my backpack with room to spare. Mains power is out so batteries are in. Nevertheless, I must still be able to use all the light shaping accessories I take for granted with my studio lights.
Profoto, Elinchrom and Broncolor all offer lighting products which combine mobility, quality and control. At the time of writing (early 2011) Profoto has it's Pro-7b, Acute-B2 and Pro-B3 lines; Elinchrom has the Quadra RX and Ranger RX; Broncolor meanwhile offers its Mobil battery pack. What all these lighting solutions have in common is that they are painfully expensive. One can easily spend north of £5000. They are still pretty bulky too.
Quantum produce an excellent range of smaller, battery-powered strobes. Many event photographers use them because they are light, rugged and powerful. The battery packs are small enough to clip on one's belt, and far superior to a jumbled bag of AAs. Price is still substantial though.
Much has changed in the last few years, largely in part due to the digital photography explosion and the rise of the modern internet. Digital has lowered the barrier to entry, encouraging people to experiment and learn. Meanwhile, the internet has allowed individuals sharing similar interests to connect and exchange information like never before.
Relatively inexpensive flash units like my Canon Speedlite 580EXII are now enjoying a new lease of life off-camera by means of sophisticated wireless transceivers and a variety of clever gadgets available through eBay. Popular websites such as Strobist feed the trend.
It wasn't always like this of course. Once you needed a workshop, a soldiering iron and a steady hand. Now the demand is there though, manufacturers are mass producing products that only a few years ago were very hard to come by. For £40 on ebay, I can buy a Cheetah Speed Pro bracket that allows me to fit Bowens s-fit accessories onto my Speedlite. LPA Design's latest range of pro-grade Pocketwizards - the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 - even facilitate true wireless E-TTL2 metering.
As one may no doubt guess by now, the solution I finally arrived at was to invest in another Canon Speedlite 580EXII, bringing my number up to two. I will no doubt add a third later at some point. These will be used in place of my big, bulky Bowens monoblocs where necessary. All my reflectors, softboxes, umbrellas and wireless triggers can be used just as before.
Let's be clear here: There is a massive difference between a £350 strobe and a £5000 battery-pack kit, as one would expect. What does the extra money buy you? In short: Power, consistency, convenience, build quality, speed, flexibility, support. We will be revisiting these later. This does not mean that the cheaper option is junk; rather, it indicates the degree of compromise made during design and manufacturing. Whether those compromises will impinge too much upon the quality of your work can only be answered by considering the product's shortcomings in relation to what you photograph. How good is "good enough"?
My use-case is quite straightforward: I will primarily be using the Speedlites for photographing people outdoors, in public places, or when transport is a problem (London is not car friendly; often it is easier, quicker and cheaper to just grab a bus or tube train.)
The strengths of these compact, inexpensive, battery powered strobes should be pretty obvious by now. The real question is: How seriously will I be affected by their weaknesses?
I'm afraid I do not have any hard numbers to backup the following points. However, these are the principal criteria by which one piece of flash equipment is distinguished from another. It stands to reason that significantly cheaper products will fare somewhat worse than more expensive models.
Let's have a closer look.
On location, strobes are usually set up in accordance with the environment's natural illumination. It is ultimately the latter which determines exposure.
The most powerful light source of all is the sun. Nothing can beat it. On a sunny day I am most likely to use a Speedlite for fill, if not a bounce board. Only in darker environments is the flash likely to serve as a key light.
Bigger strobes would be useful if I wanted to light a broader area, or maintain a larger distance between subject and source. I am more likely to be photographing individuals though, not groups, so this shouldn't pose much of a problem.
Consistency in terms of power output and colour temperature. Obviously one wants the light to be as stable as possible, from one exposure to the next.
When photographing people though one enjoys a little more wriggle room. Especially when one considers the often dramatic effects of subsequent retouching. By contrast, product photography imposes tighter constraints - then again, one would normally do that indoors, using studio lights.
Frankly, off-camera Speedlites are a pain to adjust; the buttons on the 580EXII are tiny. Reaching high-up flash units can also prove fiddly. Fortunately there is a wireless solution: The AC3 Zone Controller - another Pocketwizard accessory - can control the power of up to three Speedlite groups remotely.
Changing batteries is another annoyance. Not only does each Speedlite take AAs, they run down pretty quickly at full power. Compatible third-party battery packs, such as the Quantum Turbo 3, boast greater capacity and are much easier to recharge. They do present an additional cost though.
In practice I rarely fire my Speedlite at full power. If I am bothering with flash at all it usually means I am in a dark environment and having to open up the lens. The strobe does not have to work so hard, thus preserving the batteries better.
The Canon 580EXII Speedlite is pretty robust in relation to other strobes in its class. However it is no match for the more expensive flash products. The weakest point is the foot, which normally slides into the camera's hotshoe. To mount the unit on top of a stand, the metal base must be gripped by a special adapter. If one particular part of the flash is most likely to break, it is this.
The Speedlite is not designed for rapid-fire flashing either. Unlike the Quantums say, the Canon bulb is completely enclosed within the plastic body. It simply cannot cool as quickly. A sure fire way of burning out a Speedlite is to connect a Quantum battery pack and fire off a quick succession of flashes...
One must simply take extra care.
Strobes connected to more substantial batteries will recycle faster. That said, the 580EXII is not too bad providing one has either: A freshly charged set of AA batteries, connected an external battery pack, or reduced the light output.
When the batteries are low, recycling times quickly fall off a cliff edge. The Speedlites give no audible confirmation of a successful flash either; more expensive strobes emit a beep. One must therefore remain vigilant.
Normally my options with not would extend much further than a plastic Sto-Fen diffuser and some gels. With the aforementioned Bowens S-Fit adapter though I can employ all my existing light shaping tools. That is, all my reflectors, soft boxes and umbrellas. Any accessory I obtain for my studio lights can immediately be used with the Speedlites.
Unlike infrared triggering (the original way of controlling Speedlites remotely), wireless radio transceivers allows me to place the Speedlite wherever I want. Out of sight behind trees in broad daylight, for example. With the addition of the Pocketwizard FlexTT5 transceiver, I can also use E-TTL2 metering in situations where it is impractical to manually adjust the power. Live music gigs are one example.
Canon is a globally recognised company and the 580EXII has been heavily tried and tested by thousands of photographers all over the world. I can hire additional Speedlites if necessary and seamlessly slot them into my existing setup. I can also hire additional Bowens light shaping accessories.
As can be expected Speedlites are not a magic bullet. The more expensive battery-pack strobes will step up to a broader range of challenges and working conditions while guaranteeing a higher level of performance. They are a solid investment, providing one has the capital to begin with.
That said, one can still go a long way with the lighter, cheaper Canon 580EXII Speedlites as long as one acknowledges their shortcomings and works around them. A certain cunning is required. In many situations though there will simply be no sensible option other than heavy-duty strobes. It is the responsibility of the photographer to rationally assess each job and maintain an open mind.
Still, if the choice is between getting 85% of the way there or not at all, the answer is often obvious.