Flash and burn

I’ve been working hard this past couple of weeks to master flash photography for fun and profit. I’ve invested in light stands, a shoot-through umbrella, and what is unflatteringly referred to in the business as a slave unit (a flash on a stand that is remotely triggered by the camera). Putting all these pieces into play effectively to do what I want them to do has proved to be a challenge with a nearly vertical learning curve.

I admit that I don’t have much of a mind for mathematics and physics, which would come in really handy to figure out how to use one’s available strobes to effectively fill a given space with even, diffused light that both illuminates and flatters the subject without creating any harsh shadows. I also admit that I’ve become quite soft from using a digital camera that calculates all that stuff for me and is supposed to return beautifully lit shots every time without my having to do anything more to it than aim it at my subject and press the shutter-release button.


My Nikon D3100 is considered an entry-level DSLR, but I tell you what, it is essentially an entire photo processing lab all by itself, and there are hundreds of setting combinations one might use to achieve nearly any effect desired before the shot is even taken. It’s quite remarkable and incredibly sophisticated compared to, say, the first SLR I ever used. I have spent hundreds of hours studying and experimenting with this camera, and still don’t know all that it can do. And oftentimes I struggle to make it take the photo I want it to take because even the finest, most sophisticated equipment can only do as much as the person operating it knows to tell it to do.

One small example is adjusting white balance in the camera to suit the available light in the scene. Different light sources have different color temperatures—fluorescent light is on the cooler end of the spectrum and more on the blue side, whereas incandescent light is warmer and more yellow/orange. These hues will tend to be most noticeable in the lighter or white areas of your photographs. And it’s not always obvious which white balance setting you should use, nor which will give the best result, and you can’t rely on the camera to choose the right setting.

Case in point: I wanted to photograph my freshly groomed dogs sitting on a white blanket on the couch in my living room. The room was lit by a 150-watt incandescent light, and in the auto mode, the camera also determined that flash was needed. Here is the first shot of my very, very reluctant models.


The camera managed to capture both light sources to rather poor effect, as you can see the cooler/bluish flash light just behind and to the right of the dogs clashing with the warmer/yellowish incandescent lamp light coming from the left.

So, since I’m shooting under incandescent light, I should select the incandescent (or “indoor”) white balance setting, right?


Oops, no. Talk about overcompensating! The dogs no longer care about me or my stupid white balance issues, thanks ever so, and collapsed in resignation the moment I pulled the camera away from my eye.

Well then, perhaps the flash setting for white balance is what I need. I goosed my nearly boneless dogs up one last time and tried to get them to smile, to no avail. Rudy is wearing his “all freaked out” face (you can tell by the way his ears are levered out in the R for Rudy semaphore signal).


Ta-dah! Flash it is! At least I have now determined what setting to use in my living room at night, as this is exactly how the scene appeared to my eye through the viewfinder.

I tried to take one more shot just for good measure, but the dogs had lost all interest in the photo shoot and, apparently, in life as well by this time. There was no moving them to pose for me any further.


Now, I know what you’re thinking: the second and fourth photos above are actually the same image, but one was just tweaked in Photoshop to illustrate my point. No, they are actually two separate, unmanipulated images straight out of the camera.

This sort of flash performance (and initial disappointment, and tinkering, and losing the shot I really wanted because I had to adjust the camera three times) is why I am kind of starting to dislike it. Great flash-lit pictures are possible, of course, but my heavens, I don’t know if I have the patience to learn how to take them because it seems to me that as soon as I master the tricks for one type of situation, the next one in which I need to use flash requires some other solution entirely. It’s time-consuming and frustrating.

Rudy knows what I mean.


“oh god, please, no more pictures, even if I am perfectly coiffed”



Tiny visitors

Generally speaking, I am not a jealous woman. Nonetheless, my green eyes got all the greener this summer when I found out my neighbor Sue was hosting a hummingbird nest in her backyard. She was so excited about it, she practically did a jig whenever the topic came up. She’s the only person I’ve ever even heard of who has a hummingbird nest in her yard!

For several weeks, the mama bird (possibly a Calliope) came and went from her miniature abode, which was the size and shape of an espresso cup, delicately clinging to a slender branch of silver maple tree. Whenever I went over, she was there and gone in a flash if she showed up at all. I didn’t want to wait around all day for a chance to take her picture.

A couple of weeks ago, Sue said that two tiny babies now occupied the nest. When they were first hatched, their pointy little beaks were soft and droopy, but quickly straightened out and firmed up. I finally got over there last weekend to check them out, and found two nearly full-sized chicks pressed closely together in what looked to me like really cramped quarters. Where does the mama bird sleep at night?


Putting the camera on a tripod didn’t allow me to get close enough for the shot I wanted, and shooting handheld with a long zoom resulted in less sharp images than I hoped for, but what can you do?


The birds didn’t seem bothered by my presence, although they kept a close eye on me as I moved around below them.


They were very placid and quietly watchful as they waited for their mother to return. “She told them to stay put!” Sue says, and they did. That is, they did right up until the minute they were ready to fly away on their own.

We had a windstorm a couple of nights ago, and when I went over to see how the chicks were the next day, Sue said they were gone. The little teacup-shaped nest remains, now flattened out to more of a saucer shape by its steadily growing occupants.

Perhaps one of these tiny visitors will return to it again next year.


100 Things I’ve Learned About Photography

Despite the large number of grammatical and spelling errors in this list (which you know, gentle reader, I cannot ignore or condone), there is some terrific wisdom here. I have found that #5, “Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions while you are shooting,” is the most important one for me. Your emotions while shooting will show through in even the most ordinary snapshots.


“100 Things I’ve Learned About Photography” by Martin Gommel for the Digital Photography Scool:

Since I found photography two and a half years ago I have learned different things which I would like to share with you today. These lessons have made me richer and I hope that you will find them refreshing and inspiring on your journey with the camera, too.

1. Never do photography to become a rock-star.
2. Enjoy what you are shooting.
3. Prepare well for your shooting, realizing that your battery isn’t charge when you’re setting up for that sunrise shoot is too late!
4. Always take one warm garment more than you actually need with you.
5. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions while you are shooting.
6. Set goals you can achieve.
7. Write tips about photography, because writing is also learning.
8. Never go shooting without a tripod.
9. Be…

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Into the light

My studio photography efforts have been disappointing me lately. I can’t seem to get the crisp, vibrant images I used to get, and it has been almost giving me a complex. I’m an experienced photographer and I know how to use my equipment, so why is every image coming out muddy and fuzzy?

Today was one of the nicest spring days we’ve had yet, so I hauled my tripod and photo cube out into the back yard and set them up under the mother of all studio lights, the sun. I grabbed a few things off my desk just for giggles, not intending to create any kind of art but rather just to see whether my camera and I are still capable of producing the kind of results of which I can feel proud.

Fortunately for my peace of mind, we can. The problem in my studio is simply inadequate lighting that necessitates really long (1-second or longer) exposures to compensate for the small aperture I need to achieve sufficient depth of field. In the sunlight, no worries—I could stop it all the way down and still shoot at 1/250th. So I fooled around a bit and came up with several shots that restore my faith in both my camera and my eye by achieving the objectives I wanted: clarity and vibrancy.

Click on any image to see a larger version.

First, a set of mini Sharpie markers.

I love the intensity of the colors.

I also shot several other small items that aren’t worth posting here, then decided to move on to see what I could find in my garden (such as it is).


A single tendril of this year’s edition of my unkillable clematis vine establishes a firm grip on the trellis.


I can’t stand the damned things, everywhere in my yard. But they are kind of pretty at this stage, I have to admit.

And last but not least, I had to take some close-ups of the dogs. Rudy was the star of the show today; Reggie just wouldn’t hold still long enough to get a great shot.





Next week, I’ll head out to the camera store to see what I can do to brighten up my studio, short of installing skylights.

The one that got away

I sent the following “cat story” the other day to a friend of mine who is a Birman fancier.

So, there’s this kitty who roams around my neighborhood that could be a Birman. Lovely, lovely little creature with long hair and blue eyes. And she (she HAS to be a she!) is absolutely fearless, like no other cat I’ve ever seen.

I came home a few nights ago with the dogs in the car, and this kitty came wandering up to the garage door just as we were getting out. I was distracted, they were distracted, and when we turned around, suddenly here was this cat within a leash’s length of both my dogs! I had my hands full of packages and was in a foul mood anyway, and I just thought “holy smokes, here we go–bloodbath–and there’s not one [darn] thing I can do about it.” But the cat sauntered on up, first to Reggie (who turns into a salivating, squealing, growling, leash-pulling machine at the mere sight of a cat under a car across the street two blocks away), who gently bumped noses with her, then to Rudy, who checked out the kitty’s other end. The cat never flinched, and neither dog made the slightest noise or aggressive gesture. All acted like “meh, nice to meetcha. Laters.”

I put the dogs in the house, then had to go back into the garage and carry the kitty out because she did not want to leave. She even purred when I picked her up.

I would very, very much like to have a kitty like that of my own. I think we could make it work.

That kitty stopped by again this afternoon and sat for a moment–just for a moment–in a pretty pose on my front porch, facing the late-day sun. I thought, “oh man, that’s a beautiful shot NOW WHERE’S MY CAMERA?!?!”

Fortunately my FujiFilm was within arm’s length, so I snatched it up and ran to the window. The dogs came over to investigate, then started to bark. I had about two seconds to get the image so I poked the camera through the vertical blinds and snapped one frame.

As the cat bolted away, I knew my camera had betrayed me.


Of course, as soon as the cat was out of the frame, the lens whirred and locked focus right where she had been sitting. I took a few more shots from the exact same point just for giggles and the porch was in crisp focus in each one. Inexplicable.

With a film camera, I’d have had to adjust the f-stop (and hope there was enough light for the ISO of the film in the camera) and the focus, but I think I could have done both faster than this camera could figure out that the subject was the cat and not the spots on the windowpane three inches in front of it.


You had one job to do, you scumbag, and you blew it.

I appreciate digital cameras because they make it possible for me to be a professional photographer on a shoestring budget, which I could never do with film. But they don’t always make the best decisions, especially on the fly, and when I can’t override those decisions quickly enough, some great shots get away. This is why I specialize in product photography–the subjects don’t move and I can take as many do-overs as I need to get the image I want.

Perhaps if the camera had been properly set to the “Cat” scene mode, as mentioned in my post about buying it, this shot might have turned out. 😉

New photo gadget

I ordered a pop-up flash bounce from Photojojo that arrived today, which I think is a pretty clever little accessory, albeit a tad overpriced for what it is. If I were a craftier sort of person, I could probably rig up one of my own, but I was willing to give this a try.


It’s lightweight, easy to install, and does what is says on the tin, as the Brits say: slips easily onto the flash shoe and reflects the built-in flash above and behind the camera.

A couple of cons: I don’t think it does nearly as good a job of lighting a room as a regular flash unit pointed straight up; and when I’m standing behind the camera taking the shot, it flashes straight into my eyes.

However, when I don’t want flash highlights on the product, or when the camera and I disagree about whether to use the flash and it won’t let me turn it off (which, surprisingly, happens more often than I would have expected from a DSLR), this will help a lot.

Photojojo is a cute and clever company. I was puzzled by this warning sticker on the box they sent:

warningThey were right!


My very own little dinosaur–just what I’ve always wanted! Now I need to take a pic of him admiring himself in the new gadget and send it in to the company.

*wanders away from computer, fools around in studio for half an hour, returns*

Oh, what the heck. Here you go:

me so handsome!

A clever new toy

I’ve been wanting a backup camera that has some different features than my Nikon but can still take RAW files and has both a good zoom and a good macro mode. I decided on the FujiFilm FinePix HS30EXR, which I found today at Costco for a price that made me very happy.


Fuji makes a fine camera, and before I made the jump to a DSLR, I had a Fuji S6000 that did quite a respectable job. So I thought I knew how this new unit worked and started snapping away with it as soon as the battery was charged.

Funny thing, though … Fuji has come a long way with their cameras, and this new one is pretty darn clever. I pushed all the buttons but still got confounded by a couple of things, so I finally had to consult the manual.

Looky here, this camera has a different mode for every type of shot you might want to take, and maybe a few you haven’t even thought of yet. Case in point (click image to see a larger version):


Separate modes for dogs and cats! Who knew they required it?

I took this shot of Rudy on the couch from the other side of the room (well zoomed in). I think the dog mode did a very nice job of capturing his handsome face.

rudy-on-the-couchThis camera is going to be a great addition to my studio, I can tell already.