What's it all about?

This blog is about photography and photoediting. Its purpose is to provide hints and tips and links to interesting and useful resources for digital photographers, regardless of their level of expertise or experience. It is aimed at people who use digital SLR cameras and who process their images using the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The author of this blog is Glenn Springer and you can read more about him at his web portal at faczen.com. Information on workshops, and links to everything is at photography.to. Glenn's original blog, which is an ongoing journal of his photographic meanderings goes back to 2006 and contains many additional hints and tips, as well as representative images that he has made. Gallery quality prints are available through his Smugmug gallery site. It is an interesting place to visit to see a variety of quality images, as well as an ongoing general journal of photos going back several years.

Photography workshops are scheduled every few weeks starting in the Spring. For an overview of what's happening, please visit the photography.to website.

The most recent blog post is below. Scroll down to the bottom to see the list of previous postings or search for any particular topic.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Planning or accident?

Many of the readers of my regular blog are not photographers (they're people who like my photos and hopefully will contact me to say they want to buy one!). The ones who ARE photographers are usually not as heavily into post-processing as I am. However this is directed at those who make pictures.

Good pictures can happen by accident. No question. But sometimes you can help the process along by pre-planning and attention to detail.

I've been preaching about many things, in my courses, in my newspaper columns, in my blog and in club sessions and outings. You know, "work the scene", "know your equipment" (my famous "RTFM" comment), "it's all about the light", "don't use automatic", "envision what you want the image to look like".

There are others out there who insist you can't get a good image without thousands of dollars of lighting equipment, fancy lenses and cameras... (OK, I do have a D800 but a D70 would have made this shot. Even a Canon would. Maybe. {insert smiley face here}).

I'm a planner. I don't expect that everyone is and sometimes it's a detriment: I spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm doing and I lose spontaneity. "Everything in moderation", so maybe some of this will rub off. In this case, I want to go behind the scenes and tell you a bit about the thinking that went into the making of this image.

Steve Hill is the Curator of the Haliburton Highlands Museum and like his predecessor (whom I met in 2008), he likes to play "blacksmith" for his adoring public.There's a Blacksmith shop in the old Homestead exhibition at the museum. The camera club arranged that Steve would be there that day, so this was all planned and he knew he was there to be a model. Nothing candid about this shot, but he wasn't directed to stand 'just so' and do certain things.  Click on the image to blow it up.

When I heard we were going there for a shoot, I had already envisioned the picture I wanted. Not exactly, of course, but back in 2008 I had taken some shots of his predecessor, Tom, in the same shop and I had great success with using off-camera flash fill. I planned to do it again. The hardware setup, for those who want to know, was a Nikon SB600 speedlight with a Gary Fong diffuser attached, fired remotely by using "commander" mode in the D800 camera. Lens was my mid-range 24-120 and I shot handheld at 40mm. Although I tried the 70-200 it was too far away to get the angle I wanted and to include the window.

I thought I needed to have the window in the shot. It was a light source, of course, but I needed to anchor where the light was coming from and I put the flash on the same side, the left, to match it. I stepped to the left (sorry if I got in other photographers' way!) to get the composition right, with Steve not blocking the window. I needed the vertical orientation to include the anvil, his face, the window...

It's important to understand that when you're mixing flash and ambient light, the shutter speed controls the ambient and you control the amount of flash fill with the aperture (assuming you don't fiddle with the ISO). In this case, though, I used the built-in electronics, the camera told the flash how much output to use by measuring the light through the lens (TTL) during the shot. So I had to use "Flash Compensation" to adjust that. The point is, the shutter speed makes no difference to the flash since the burst of light is so much faster.

The ideal way to do this is to shoot some test images without the flash, to get the levels right, then add it in. That's what I did, and I dialed the flash back to -1ev, so it wasn't acting as the main light source. The end exposure here was 1/30 second at f/8, ISO 200. The speed was a bit slow, I probably should have opened a stop or popped the ISO up to get 1/60 but it worked. VR on the lens helps. I locked the aperture at f/8 to get a comfortable depth of field and besides, it's the sweet spot for that lens. Actually, good thing I did, because it was the right speed for the sparks coming off the anvil.

So I actually thought about all this stuff before going out to shoot: I made sure I had the flash and diffuser with me, and the right lens, a tripod (which I ended up not using for this shot). I knew I wanted commander mode, that I would be dialing the flash back and would measure the ambient light before the shot.

I made a couple of mistakes. Two that could have been disastrous and in fact, caused me to only get a couple of usable shots. (1) I had been shooting brackets before and forgot to turn it off. So many of my frames were not exposed correctly and it took me a few minutes to figure out why. (2) Would you believe I left my memory card at home in the computer? All I had in the camera was a 4Gb CF card and I only discovered this later when I tried to take some other pictures and couldn't. The camera said it could only hold 30 images, in fact it held 90 before giving up. (3) I didn't get the right lighting on Steve's beard. Then I forgot about it and I was lucky it worked out.


When I got home (and struggled to upload the pictures, I can't find my CF card reader), I zeroed in on this one frame. Here's what it looked like before I did anything to it, except cropping and straightening it up a bit:

So I didn't really need to do too much to it. I tweaked it a bit in Lightroom, I wanted to take the clarity back a little bit to soften it and adjust the white clipping so nothing was blown out, and I added a bit of dark vignetting to keep the eye in the image. Now over to Photoshop.

My first action in Photoshop is almost always to hit ctrl-J and duplicate the background layer. Two reasons: I want to preserve my original image in case I decide to go back to it and I may want to blend all or part of it into the finished image. In this case, I also knew I wanted to treat Steve and the background separately, so the next thing I did was to make a selection of him, the anvil and sparks, and copy them onto a separate layer. Now I could tweak the lighting on his face and eye, add some sharpening to the beard. Like I said, it didn't need much. The joys of getting it right in camera!

Now the background. I cheated. I tried a few tricks, like motion blur, adding texture... even Topaz Simplify. In the end, I opened it in Topaz Impression and looked at a few sample styles. I immediately loved the "Impasto 1" preset, unmodified. However, as I mentioned earlier, the result was a bit too strong so I reduced the opacity of that layer to let the original show through a bit. And the layer with Steve on it is not at full opacity either, to help blend it in with the rest of the image.

I turned the layer with Steve and the anvil on it back on. I corrected a few edge issues and lightened up the anvil, and saved it. Done, except for my "BlogFrame" which is how I like to show my images online. I had written a short Photoshop Action to make that happen: it put a grey frame and dropshadow around the image, prepared a text layer for the title and a separate layer where I could stamp on my signature. Two minutes later: finished.

So what's the message here? I've written up what I thought about and what I did from the initial concept to the finished image. Did I need a fancy 36 Megapixel D800 DSLR to make this shot? No. Pretty well all of the Nikons since the D70 have had all the capability I needed. Did I need a $2000 fast lens? No, I shot at f/8, with one of the least expensive lenses I own (this is an original 24-120, I got it back with my D70 in 2006, everyone says it's the worst lens Nikon ever made. Right.). Did I need a high-tech TTL Nikon Speedlight? Well, it helped. I could have done this with a reflector instead. I did need something to bounce light in from the front. Could you do this with a point-and-shoot camera? Nah...although it could be done by a really experienced photographer with virtually anything.
As a small aside, using commander mode and a remote flash is tricky. You need to practice that in advance so you know how: when I first got there, the remote wasn't triggering. It only took me a minute to realize that although the camera was set up right, the flash sensor wasn't activated.  You need to know your equipment. RTFM.
This is about the process. Hopefully it gives you, the reader, an idea about how I created a successful picture, from planning to execution. Maybe you'll use some of these ideas in your future shoots.

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