How quickly things change.

The thin veneer of civilization… I am sure it has been mentioned enough to be a cliché. But just like truisms, clichés are true – that’s why they are clichés. Civilization can change, turn bad, or disappear quickly. I reflect on this these days.

And change is what we are seeing now. My store is closed for the duration and I am at home. Fortunately, I can teach from here, interactively via the web.

So let’s see the silver linings. This is a good time to learn. (My ebooks, incidentally, are temporarily on sale for just $49 for the collection: go here and use checkout code “COVID” at the end to get a $30 discount.)

Another thing to do? Get creative. Take out your camera and a flash (or two), and make some documents of this time. We are documenting, and even making, history here.

As for me, I am going to do a portrait every day. Here are the first four:

Because I am a photographer, you can see the equipment. In the last photo, for example, that is two manual speedlights fired with Pocketwizards. The left one is fitted with a Honl Photo Aurora Borealis Green gel; the one on the right is equipped with a Traveller-12 softbox. (See them here). In the second image you can also see a Honl Photo 1/4″ grid in use as the hairlight. Yeah, let’s get creative in these terrible days. Learn flash!

Michael

PS: I’ll teach a flash course online live next week; contact me for details or for future dates.

Math is useful…

Yes, math is useful sometimes. And when I say “math” I do not mean simple arithmetic. I mean math. Real math. Calculus, and things like that – such as Fourier transforms.

I learned about FFTs (Fast Fourier Transforms) as an undergrad in university. And today I discovered a use for them in my photography practice. Namely, to remove unwanted repeated patterns from scans of old photos, printed on textured paper.

But let’s start at the beginning. What is a Fourier transform? Well… think about transforming a time-domain picture to a frequency-domain picture. (or, as Wikipedia puts it, “The Fourier transform (FT) decomposes a function (often a function of the time, or a signal) into its constituent frequencies. “. A picture full of repeated lines thus become two dots, for example.

And this (detail from a) picture, full of a repeating pattern due to the original photo paper…:

Becomes this, when transformed through an FFT:

But now I can remove the dots:

..and then I can do a inverse FFT, to end up with this:

And if that isn’t magic, I am not sure what is. There you have it: Magic through math.

Incidentally, the app I use is ImageJ, a free Java-based app from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Your tax dollars at work, here: https://imagej.nih.gov/ij/.

“I need pro equipment”… ?

I hear this a lot: students almost apologizing for “only” owning, say, a Digital Rebel camera, or a similar “starter” model. Because, they say, “of course you need a pro camera for pro results”.

Pro lenses, maybe. But pro camera? Not always, not at all. And even the lenses: this, for example, is student Veronic this morning, using a Yongnuo 50mm lens for Canon (a clone of the cheap Canon 50mm f/1.8, but cheaper):

Veronic. (50mm f/1.8 Yongnuo lens, Yongnuo manual flash, two pocketwizards, Honlphoto grid.)

If you were to see this at full size, you would see it competes very well with photos taken with my pro equipment.

Those of you who take my lessons learn all about this; for the rest of you: be a little skeptical with regards to what you read. Yes, equipment is important. But no, it is not always needed for a quality picture.

Get Cool

Today, I was reminded of how I should not let you all down – the many people who read this blog. Like one reader, Dr Jason Polak, who kindly dropped by in the studio today to have a chat.

(Hint: anyone near Ottawa, feel free to come say hi. The store is open 9:30AM–9pm weekdays, and slightly shorter hours at weekends). So anyway… I promise I’ll write more. Starting today.

One thing to write about is portraits. And how I love doing them. And how I like doing not just the “stand there and smile” pictures, but also slightly more creative pictures. You do not need to look at the camera smiling, not in every picture!

So here’s one I took this weekend—one of a series:

A simple shot; I used two speedlights with Honlphoto grids, driven by Pocketwizards; and one strobe in a softbox, also driven by a Pocketwizard. Took two minutes to set up.

If you need to learn how to do this, it is remarkably simple. You might buy my books or attend my courses, for example. It’s worth the effort!

Here, another one, again showing action:

And that same day, a photo of a dog who was nearing the end of its life: it was sick, and was about to see its suffering ended. A sad event, but good to create a lasting memory:

The message is simple: shoot some portraits that are not just “stare at the camera and ‘smile'”. Worth the effort and you will be happy with your results.

One more, then:

And finally: a new course for those of you near Ottawa: “Take Better Photos Of your Kids”. Sign up soon, because as usual, classes are limited to four people.

Ajax and Karsh

I just spoke as one of the keynote speakers at an Ajax Photography Club event called “Discovering Karsh”. All about Armenian Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, whom The Economist, after his death, described as “the best portrait photographer in the world for the past fifty years”. 

Karsh can teach photographers today a thing or two, and that was the subject of my presentation. He was a master at light, mainly in moody low key portraits (think of the grumpy Churchill portrait, where Karsh had respectfully pulled the cigar from Churchill’s mouth), for one. Google it—for copyright reasons I cannot reproduce it here.

He was also a real people person, and that was his super power. He studied his subjects before a shoot. He talked to them. At length, often, if given the opportunity. Instead of taking 100 pictures and choosing one, he took one or two when the moment was right. He was a master at choosing the moment. And his subjects trusted him and his ability to make them look good.

Google “Karsh” and see the iconic portraits that defined the 20th century. Sure, Karsh is not everyone’s taste—his portraits are low-key and often moody—but they are certainly masterful. And they defined the people that he photographed as well as reflected them. As a portrait photographer, if you can do that, you have made it.

 

 

Sunny? Sixteen!

You have heard me talk about the “Sunny Sixteen” rule before. This is a very useful rule of thumb that allows you to shoot without using your camera’s light meter. The rule is:

If your shutter speed is set to 1/ISO (e.g. 125 ISO at 1/125th sec, 200 ISO at 1/200 sec, or 400 ISO at 1/400 sec, etc), then on a fully sunny day at noon, f/16 will give you the right exposure.

Like this, at f/16:

And if it is not sunny?

f/16 Sunny Distinct
f/11 Slight Overcast Soft around edges
f/8 Overcast Barely visible
f/5.6 Heavy Overcast No shadows
f/4 Open Shade/Sunset No shadows

(Source: Wikipedia)

This rule is a rule of thumb, so feel free to vary – I often expose two thirds of a stop higher – but since the sun is always the same brightness, it holds well. And it is nice to be able to expose without light meters, if only in order to be able to check your camera.

Bonus question: how do you expose the moon?

Answer: f/16. The moon at noon (there, so any time here, including night) is as bright as the earth at noon- they are the same distance from the sun!

 

 

Watch!

So. You want to shoot a wristwatch:

Watch at full size: it’s gorgeous.

But not all shots—especially iPhone shots like this one—start out that way. This one is no exception. It started differently:

As you see, I did a few things, and all watch (and most product) photos are like that.

  • I changed the geometry. To avoid reflections I had to shoot at an angle. I had to use the “Transform” pane with manual adjustments to fix that.
  • I changed exposure settings (blacks especially).
  • I removed noise.
  • I used the brush adjustment tool to increase contrast on the face.

And lastly, I removed any imperfections:

And that’s how it is done. So when you see a perfect watch photo and wonder why you can’t do it this way, rest assured that the pros don’t, either.

 

Yesterday’s workshop

It is minus 28 degrees Celsius. Yesterday, I taught a Creative Flash Photography workshop in Timmins, Ontario. Here’s a sample!

High key:

Some creative gel use:

A snapshot showing the setup for the next shot:

And here’s the shot!

…which also works in B/W:

A simple one flash grid portrait:

And two together:

Fun was had. Flying me out to anywhere for a workshop like this is worth your time: hands-on learning so beats only reading a book or watching a video!

 

Why manual?

Especially when shooting with flash, your camera (though not necessarily your flash) needs to be in manual mode. I’ll show you why.

This is Aurele Monfils in Timmins today, in auto mode:

And here is Aurele in manual mode:

In manual mode, I made a few adjustments. Namely:

  • Shorter shutter speed
  • Higher ISO
  • Flash TTL minus one stop (FEC, Flash Exposure Compensation).

After these, as you can see the dashboard is no longer unnatural looking, and you can actually see what little late afternoon sky blue there was.