Always look on the bright side

When lighting skin, there’s one rule I go by: I light it brightly.

This student on my college course looks great and pretty:

But look what happens when I light her up 1.66 extra stops:

Her skin looks even better.

So when I use flash, I expose 1-2 stops over normal, by using flash exposure compensation when using TTL flash, or by increasing flash power, or by simply exposing more when using available light. You will see a lot of high-key images in my work:

Those are from a shoot I did today. One on camera flash, manual, 1/4 power, camera on 400 ISO, 1/125 sec, f/5. And one flash on my left, set at 1/32 power, aimed direct at the subject through a 1/4″ Honl photo grid.

Can you seen the effect of the individual flashes, and of exposing so brightly?


Miss Info

A friend and student, the other day, would not let me format her memory card. “Nooo”, she almost shouted. The reason? Some Internet-famous wedding/family/baby photographer said, on her blog, that formatting is harmful for memory cards.

That is spectacularly bad advice. Let me assure you that not only is formatting a card not harmful, it is beneficial for you. Without formatting each time, eventually, memory errors such as lost clusters, excessive fragmentation, and so on will creep in and destroy your content. natural degradation will not result in areas being mapped out, as would happen if you formatted. Of course data loss can happen anyway (see yesterday’s post), but the chances are greater if all you do is delete rather than format. Bad, bad idea.

Where did this photographer get the idea that formatting is bad? What qualifies her to give opinions on technical issues like this? Now, I do not know this photographer; I do not even know her name,. What I do know is that her advice is bad. Perhaps she has an electrical engineering degree, like me, but that does not mean she cannot be wrong. And here, she is.

Which brings me to today’s subject: the Internet is a dangerous place, full of misinformation. Read, but read more, and read counter-opinions, and check out the writer’s qualifications. I would ask Sandisk and Lexar, or canon and other camera makers. And I am pretty sure they’ll recommend that you format a memory card after, or rather before, each use.

Yes, formatting wears out a drive, as does every type of writing to it. But only after many write cycles—think millions. If you format a card hourly for half a century, you may perhaps see degradation. But that is hardly likely, is it?

My moral: careful whom you believe. Hesitate before you take legal advice from me, dental hygiene advice from an obstetrician, or electronics advice from a baby photographer of some repute. Just sayin’.

Oh yes, and format those cards. Frequently. Every time.


Remember: Ten Memory Card Tips

A word, and a few tips, about memory cards. And how today, another CF card lost its content during—in the middle of—a shoot.

My CF card failed with “error reading contents” while importing into Lightroom, during a commercial shoot today. This was a CF card, connected to my Macbook Pro through a card reader, on location. Embarrassing to say the least.

I suspect the card reader is the issue, since this is the second card in a month, same way. Regardless, I lost the contents and had to reshoot a part of my shoot. Ironically, this happened after I had, just moments earlier, remarked to my assistant that I was taking a risk, shooting part of this shoot on a Canon 7D, which does not allow saving the same issue to two cards simultaneously. And sure enough. Note to self: use the 1Dx every time, not almost every time.

Ten Tips for memory cards:

  1. After use, format your memory cards; do not “delete all images”.
  2. Do this formatting every time—after you make and verify a backup of the photos, of course.
  3. Do it in the camera, never on the computer.
  4. If a piece of equipment fails, discard it. Take no chances.
  5. Use cards that are as fast as you need—no faster or slower.
  6. Use cards that are as large as you need—no larger or smaller. I recommend that you use multiple smaller cards, not one large one. I use 16 GB cards and 8 GB cards.
  7. Push cards in, and pull them out, gently and slowly. And preferably after you turn off the equipment’s power.
  8. Unmount the cards before removing them from the computer.
  9. Deleting is never permanent; formatting may or may not be.
  10. You can often recover bad images. Both Lexar and Sandisk offer utilities that help recover images from “bad” cards.

My assistant today was Maged:

As always, he offered good advice; he was a “second pair of eyes”, which is what a good assistant should be.

Here’s that group shot with a little post-crop vignetting:

But we could go the other way for effect, and vignette positively:

I have never done that, but one day I will.

Part of today was a “green screen” shoot:

The green will be replaced by whatever background the client wishes to use for the image. That’s how green screen works (see tips on this blog for its use). Somewhat like this, where I made the background transparent:

And now, back to finishing my images. After I unpack the truck, that is. Photography keeps me fit.


Evolution of a shot

How do we set up a shot with both ambient and flash light? Let’s look at one.

Let’s start like this:

That’s the studio setting: 1/125 sec, f/8, 200 ISO. Ambient light plays no role. That is the definition of the studio settings.

Is that what we want here? I would say no. We want to see the lamp!

So now, let’s mix in ambient light, shall we? We aim for –2 stops on the light meter. Here’s 400-40-4, which gets me very close:

That’s 400-40-4 (i.e. 400 ISO, 1/40 sec, f/4): the “party setting”.

Much better, if we want that mix.

Now let’s open that curtain and take a look. Fortunately., the outside light and the lamp are in the same range, so I can set my camera for either of those. 400-40-4 will do it. If I had to choose, I would choose based on the lamp, the most important element.

Because I want no light spill from the flash into the rest of the room, I do not use an umbrella. Instead, I use a small Honl photo Traveller 8 softbox, held close to the subject. Here’s student Arsheen setting it up:

That gives me the final shots:

That mix of warm and flash light: beautiful. But that’s my taste: you can do your own, develop your own style. And that is what flash is all about.


Deterministic flash

Flash phenomena may seem stochastic, but they are deterministic. Look those words up if you like; what I mean is that whatever happens, it’s predictable, not random. When something goes wrong, look for, and find, the reason. If it seems weird, you just haven’t found the reason.

Yesterday, I ran into three curious flash phenomena in one day.  And just for fun, I’ll run them by you. So you’ll learn to solve these things by yourself.

*** 1. THE CASE OF THE MISSING TTL. You turn on your Canon 580EX flash, and instead of the MODE button toggling it between “ETTL” and “M”, it toggles between “e” and “M”. What gives?

Solution: you set something weird in the custom settings, and TTL has been disabled. Solution: set the custom settings back to default. Use a connected camera to do this, or read the manual for instructions for doing it manually.

*** 2. THE MYSTERY OF THE FIVE EXTRA STOPS. This is a common one. We set up everything properly, but the photo looks like this, at least five stops overexposed:

Solution: this is due to the flash firing at full power, instead of at the correct  lower power as calculated by TTL. The reason for this is almost always the same: a bad contact. For the TTL mechanism to work properly, all five contacts need to be good. And millivolts are easily lost if a contact is dirty, say. So sure enough, after cleaning the contacts, all went well:

*** 3. THE CONUNDRUM OF THE “A” THAT SHOULD BE AN “E”. The flash toggles between M and TTL, but instead of the usual “ETTL”, I see “ATTL”. ATTL was an earlier iteration of Canon’s TTL mechanism, while ETTL is the most recent version. Mysterious!

Solution: Here too, the reason was a bad contact. The phenomena that can result from bad contacts are legion. Cleaning the contacts worked: now I got normal ETTL again.

In my years as a photographer, I have seen many things go wrong with speedlites. I have found that although many things can be the cause of the malfunction, it’s usually settings or contacts. Check those before you do much else.