ISO 1600 was my friend

Two Saturdays ago my wife and I had the opportunity to attend a voice recital that had been put together by our friend and neighbor Jerome Kopmar. He has been the Cantor Emeritus at a local synagogue and has performed around the globe. He is also a voice instructor and one of his better/best students also performed this particular evening. Last year’s recital (which I saw without my wife due to her being out of town) was just as nice, but a little smaller in scope and held at a different location. I did not bring my camera to that performance, but did ask if I could bring my 40D with me to this one and Jerry agreed.

The one caveat I was given was that I could not use a flash. This seemed quite reasonable considering how the flash popping on would no doubt have blinded him, if only momentarily, making it rather difficult to read his sheet music.

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Once my wife and I arrived at the synagogue (this was his former synagogue, if I understood matters correctly, and they had asked if he would put on this year’s performance at the synagogue) I took some preliminary shots within the room the performance would be done. Poor results. The lighting was chaotic in that there were both compact florescent lights as well as incandescent sprinkled about the recesses of the ceiling. But to add real insult to injury was the fact the room was fairly dark. Well, dark as far as cameras are concerned.

It’s amazing how much more light is needed for a camera to capture an image at a lower ISO. Lighting conditions that seem quite fine and reasonable to our eyes can be total shit for the camera and it’s sensor. I knew this fact, but really hadn’t been exposed to it until this particular evening. I had brought along my trusty Canon 70-200mm f/4 zoom (constant f/4) and even it had one helluva time gathering enough light to make the sensor happy. During my pre-performance practice shots I kept bumping up the ISO in an attempt to obtain at least a 1/60 shutter speed, which I felt was necessary considering tonight’s performers would not be static forms upon the stage. About the best I could ever achieve was 1/30 when using my highest standard ISO setting: 1600.

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First: thank the heavens for Image Stabilization. A tripod was unreasonable for this endeavor and I do not own a monopod. Image stabilization saved my ass (and photos) on more than one occasion and I am so glad I spent the extra dough to get this feature in my lenses.

Second: ISO 1600 on the Canon 40D is usable, but just. Noise was a common problem throughout the range of pictures, but it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. Yet it was bad enough.

I also became acutely aware of how loud is my camera. I’m not saying it’s louder than any other dSLR, but when all eyes and ears are focused upon a performer onstage, the sudden sound of a dSLR mirror flipping up, shutter curtain opening then closing, and the mirror flipping back down sounds like…..well…..like a cannon going off. I don’t think it disturbed anyone and I did check with Jerry during the intermission, asking if either my movement about the room or the sound of my camera irritated him. He quickly dismissed such notions and thanked me for not only attending, but for taking pictures (which I have, of course, shared with him and his wife).

Without having yet done any research on the issue of shooting under such circumstances, I have a hard time imagining what sort of thing I could do to obtain better results that wouldn’t involve adding lighting, which is out of the question. Shooting wide open with a pretty decent f/4 lens…..other than bumping up the ISO what is one to do?

I mean, other than purchase a Canon 5D Mark II which can shoot at even higher ISOs with less noise!

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“Farwell to this lands cheerless marshes”

What to do…..what to do…..what to do…..

Consider this:

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Yeah. I know. Not quite what I had in mind either. See……I’ve had this idea for a few weeks of trying a few different things. You know, just to branch out a bit and keep the whole photography thing alive and kicking. My plans for winter shooting out of doors have been put on hold due to that ever useless bitch Mother Nature, who, for the life of her, cannot get her winter game-face on here in southwest Ohio. So I start putting this idea together that I’d like to use the fast burst mode on my camera and photograph Big Boi playing with his cat toy (emphasis on “his”), which we call Boi Toi. Cute, eh? So the other day I finally drag out the camera and tripod and make my way to the living room, which happens to have the best and strongest light of the day at this time. I opt to shoot with my fixed 50mm f/1.8 thinking that the super wide aperature will allow for lots of light to strike my sensor, thus allowing me to use a fast shutter speed to capture all the motion in a sort of freeze-frame effect.

Alas, the best laid plans.

The natural light wasn’t as strong as I had thought and so the shutter speed wasn’t as high as I had hoped. However, not all was lost here as I quickly reviewed taken shots and realized that with the slower shutter speed I was capturing some blur (too much on occasion), which really worked in the pictures. The blurring truly conveyed the sense of movement, which would have been absent at higher shutter speeds. But fate had more surprises in store for me. The 50mm, while a lovely lens, is really an 80mm once the smaller APS sensor is accounted for. Thus the field of view between the lens and the floor was rather narrow; more narrow than I had expected. This led to the problem of trying to keep the cat and toy within the frame at all times. Needless to say this was rather impossible and I subsequently wound up with loads of shots with more than half the cat out of frame. Still, I was able to salvage some from this experiment:

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The final straw was also something I had not anticipated (big surprise there, eh?). The camera and lens were set to auto-focus during this experiment. When I was later viewing the pictures on my computer’s monitor I quickly noticed how often the little leather bits at the end of the string were in focus, but the cat was not! Well shit. But this doesn’t mean the experiment was a total waste of time because it wasn’t. First, I learned that I need more light. Second, I learned that a slower shutter speed is not a bad thing for this particular setting. Third, I learned that with stronger (much stronger) lighting I may be able to adjust the aperture to something like f/9 or even f/11 and increase my focal depth such that both the cat and toy are more evenly in-focus. And finally, I learned that I should use a wider angle lens for this experiment…..or go out and buy the new full frame Canon 5D Mark II. But as I know my wife would slit my throat I think I’ll avoid that particular plan of attack for the time being.

Next (I’ve been a busy little bee of late!) I took part in a little home-building project. No. I didn’t get the walls prep’d for painting, but I did put together a home-made light box. It is rather crude, but rather larger than the ones sold at my local camera shop. In addition it only cost about $50 for all the components versus $100 for the one at my camera store, which is about half the size to boot. My apologies for not having taken pictures of the light box or its construction, but I didn’t want to take the time to photograph the assemblage in fears that it would turn out horribly wrong and then I’d look like more of a tool than usual.

So, it turned out okay. Not as nice as I had hoped, but it was a first-run and I imagine that many folks encounter less-than-stellar results on the first attempt at anything. I also managed to give it a go photography-wise, which also led to less-than-stellar results:

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There are a couple of things wrong with both the light box and the photographs I took. (1) The colour is off. Too grey. Or so I think. And I fiddled with white balance, but never got quite for what I was looking, but I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. This was an experimental run; really just to determine if I should purchase more lights for the box (which I should and will). (2) I need to run some white tape along the inside borders of the box because there is a small gap which did appear in some of my photographs. Fortunately I was doing some zoom and crop to the photos so the hint-of-dark disappeared. (3) I need a real close-up/macro lens. I put off purchasing my preferred Canon 100mm f/2.8 as I didn’t think I would need its close-up abilities until next spring, but with the light box I definitely have need for it. I think an order shall soon be placed at Adorama.com.

So there you are. Two experiments recently undertaken where the results were not up to spec, but all was not lost. I consider these to be learning experiences, each filled with the appropriate amount of learning curve. I am so certain that there are plenty of amateur photographers out there who would have nailed things better the first time round, but I am not one of them. Typically I must plod along numerous times until I get it right, if ever. But that’s okay. If nothing else it shows that I’m thinking, acting upon my thinking and analyzing the results in hopes that I learn something which I can apply in round two. Besides….it’s always nice to be behind the camera!

“We can go for a walk, where it’s quiet and dry”

There must be a joke somewhere out there that asks the question: How many pictures must a photographer snap before he gets one really great one? Mind you, I don’t have a witty answer for the question. That would be too easy, wouldn’t it? I guess I could say “One,” because every picture I happen to take is great! But this would be far from the truth.

Since having picked up my every so lovely Canon 40D almost exactly one year ago I have taken a lot of pictures. Many….maybe most….have been complete rubbish. Total crap. A waste of the battery power necessary to have captured the image. But this is okay. Really. Not depressing one little bit.

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However, things have been better in the past few months. I genuinely believe that I have had some better pictures and that this has come about from a bit of learning from my previous mistakes. A bit of willingness to explore and try new things. A bit of luck. Okay…..a whole shit-load of luck. And this knowledge, this knowing that I’m getting more keepers than deleters than I used to is a great stroke to the ego. Oh, don’t get me wrong; most are still destined for the Recycle bin icon on the computer, but the number of keepers to deleters has risen and THIS is a good thing. But there is an even greater way to stroke one’s ego when one is a newbie to the world of dSLR photography: go back and look at one’s digital point-n-shoot work.

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What the hell?!?! Did I not bother to look at the white balance setting at ALL??

Please do not misunderstand me…..I am certainly aware that there are tonnes of folks out there shooting great pictures with digital point-n-shoot models. Better pictures than I am taking! Better pictures than I could take with even the most expensive of equipment. But that is because the equipment doesn’t make one a better photographer. Maybe it allows for more creative control. Maybe it allows for more possibilities under difficult circumstances, but equipment doesn’t make the photographer. Me and my Canon 40D are proof-positive of that!

Still…..while reviewing the multitude of pictures I took with my Canon A95 I was constantly blurting aloud things like “What the hell was I thinking?”, “Did I bother to check my settings first?”, “How can THIS many pictures be out of focus?!”

I think it is important to mention that all of my pictures taken with the venerable A95 were simply what I like to call ‘records’. They were a record of a moment in time and not taken for any “artistic” or otherwise expressive quality. In other words, I wasn’t trying to “do” anything other than capture the moment for posterity. But still……framing and composition were most always of the “put the subject in the middle and shoot” variety. Boring. But the real problem…the one that crept across every folder…was focus.

So many of those pictures (which I DID NOT upload to Flickr – what would have been the point in that?) were gently out of focus. The problem wasn’t motion blur (created by me or the subject), but simply the camera not being properly focused upon the given subject. And during the process of taking those pictures there would have been no good way to tell they were out of focus (so that they could be re-shot if possible) because the little LCD screen wouldn’t offer the requisite resolution to check such. It was only after uploading the images that I would have discovered how awful they were.

The fact that I have so many of these gently out of focus images strongly suggests that they were the best of the rest, and what a horrible thought is that! And don’t think that the issue was lighting as almost all of these photos were shot in sufficient lighting for their purpose. After all, even I knew (at that time) that the Canon line of cameras (p&s as well as dSLR) were less than stellar in low-light situations.

So….what has this stroll down memory lane done for me? Simple. It’s taught me that my lovely, lovely Canon 40D is just what the doctor ordered to solve this problem! I have had only a few out of thousands of images that were out of focus (unintentionally out of focus that is). For this I am quite grateful. Of course…..I still have images from my Canon A630 to go through……who knows what I might find there!

4 a.m. Northside, Clapham Common

Okay….it’s really rather embarrassing. Silly even. But I can’t help but be just a smidgen proud and excited.

Winner!

Our local grocer, Kroger, has a small photo printing department. One wouldn’t think that the local grocer would get much business in this manner, but the area is always busy with customers. I guess getting your digital images printed while one completes the grocery shopping isn’t such a bad deal. I know I’ve passed the photo printing area a couple of hundred times in the past two years, but never thought too much about it since I can print my images at home if I elect to do so. But doing so is pricey compared to having it done at a shop, so I elected to try their service about two weeks ago.

While the store clerk printed my images I completed my short list of shopping and returned to collect my images. As I stood reviewing the handful I had printed the clerk commented on how nice some of them were, for which I thanked him. He then asked if I was aware of the Photo of the Week competition they had in the store, to which I replied “No.” Apparently anyone who brings in an image or images for printing can enter the competition. All one needs to do is print a 4X6-inch picture and complete a small form. All the pictures entered each week are put before a panel of employees for the purpose of selecting the Picture of the Week. Seemed reasonable enough for me so I entered my dragonfly picture, which, oddly enough, wasn’t my favourite of the ones I had printed, but I thought it might appeal to others.

When I returned to the store yesterday I swung by the photo printing department (which is by one of the two main entrances) expecting the usual: disappointment. Instead I found my picture, now an 8×10-inch print, proudly displayed as Picture of the Week!

Ok. Sure…..it’s my local grocery store. And it’s hardly like it was selected by a crack panel of photography professionals or experts, but it makes me feel really great never-the-less. I have had precious little in my life over the past four-years to make me feel good about myself. It’s been rather rough and as such I’ll take even the smallest of victories I can find.

Gonna be a short one….

Seeing how I pretty much covered everything of the photo shoot with the daughter at Woodland Cemetery, I really don’t have much to add except for something about the most recent upload to Flickr (10 pictures) and some final thoughts.

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In my previous post I mentioned how I frequently took at least two snaps of each pose: one with and one without flash. Some of the pics with flash were repeated at different flash outputs so I may have wound up with five or six flash versions before we moved on to a different pose. On the whole I was more pleased with the non-flash versions of all the photos where she is on the ground with the lovely Ginkgo leaves. However, this isn’t the case for the pictures in the latest upload to Flickr.

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The images I took of her against or by the tree (with the Ginkgo leaves still about) looked too dark when first viewed in review on the LCD screen of my camera. I took a number of non-flash images before I realized that maybe flash was the way to go and again began the process of shooting multiple images at different flash output levels until I found that for which I was looking: images that looked natural and without any harsh shadows. This was, for the most part (and keeping in mind this was my first time trying such a technique), a success, but not as complete a success as I would have liked. If you look at the above image you can see a distinct shadow created by her right arm upon her exposed skin. Oh well….I’m not going to worry about it. I still think it’s a lovely shot and the shadow a very minor annoyance.

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So…final thoughts. This was a great achievement for myself. I real pat-on-the-back moment if I do say so myself. When at the cemetery I saw the ‘scene’ and realized its potential. I thought about its potential and found a way to exploit it. I opted to work outside my comfort zone and try not just one (portraiture), but two (flash not on the camera’s automatic settings) new things. I had fun. And of all these moments it is the fun part that I will likely remember the best. It was fun because it was new, exciting and different. It was fun because the daughter and I got to spend time together in a positive manner, which is always difficult with a 16-year old. And yes, it was fun because things worked out. I’m not so certain the impact of the fun bits would be so strong if the whole endeavor had led to rubbish.

The only problem now is, where do I go from here? How much of this was simply a coincidence of moments that happened to work together relatively flawlessly? What are the chances I can do this again, but under different circumstances? Can I replicate this bit of good luck without over-thinking it and making it decidedly less fun? I don’t yet know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping or the best.

Gonna be a long one…..

Like the title says, this is likely to be a long posting. But I do have lots to say and I think it’s only fair to warn you advance. So settle in, grab a cup of tea or a bottle of beer or a glass of single-malt, and take a journey with me…..

This is the daughter being semi-forced into being my model for an afternoon of shooting at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.

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Nice, eh?

A few weeks back I ventured to the cemetery with some fellow Flickr mates, who also happen to live in the area. We had a great time shooting and chatting, and then followed it up with some nice dinner. While shooting I thought about how nice it would be to return on an overcast day and shoot some images of the various statues and such. You know….pretty common fare for cemetery photography. But as I like that sort of thing I have no problem with running with the crowd. And so I did return on just such an overcast day with pending rain.

While visiting on this overcast day I noticed that the Ginkgo trees had finally shed most of their leaves, which had been quite attached when I was there the week before. Even in the diffuse light of this overcast day the leaves made for quite a splash of colour as they lay upon both lawn and road. While it took a while an idea did eventually develop in my mind that I should return with daughter in tow and shot her against these leaves. I thought that her darkish red hair, pale complexion and penchant for blue-coloured clothing would make for wonderful contrast and compliment against these Ginkgo leaves. And so it was that I returned home with this idea in mind only to find that the weather predicted for the next day was to be more of the same: overcast, but without threat of rain. And so I informed the daughter of my plans for her.

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The next day (Thursday, if memory serves) was indeed overcast and I eagerly awaited her return to home from school. Once she arrived I filled my car with my camera kit, some towels (as it was damp from the previous night’s rain) and a ladder, which was to be used to offer me some altitude by which I might better shot the photographs as the daughter lay upon the leaves.

So far the planning and excursion have been pretty straight-forwarded. But this was, for me, an incredibly stressful situation. I had never before done anything like this. I did manage to cajole the daughter and a friend of hers to semi-pose for me for a series of pictures of them playing Guitar Hero, but this was completely different. I was about to embark upon something new and completely different and my life’s history tells me that such journeys always, not sometimes or almost always, but always end in failure and misery.

We started with a few pictures, but I realized that she was too stiff so I talked her through loosening up and being more natural. Surprisingly it worked. She took well to my directions and relaxed, thus relieving much of the tension that the first few photographs conveyed. I also quickly learned that full-body-length images weren’t working. Not at all. They looked to linear and didn’t pop in any meaningful way (as much meaning as one can gather from the 3.0-inch LCD screen on the back of a digital camera). So I shifted focus (pun completely intended) to shots that were much closer up and here I struck upon success or, at the very least, success compared with what I had been getting.

Concerned that the overcast day was going to leave the daughter underexposed, I had brought along my flash unit (Canon 580EX II) to help me through the shoot. However, I wasn’t certain it was worth bringing as I really have zero knowledge and/or skill with its use. About the only thing I know is that I can regularly obtain better flash images indoors by bouncing the light off ceilings or walls when using it (thanks Strobist!). And I have managed to get better flash pictures in this manner, but I had always set the camera to full automatic mode when doing so. Under cemetery conditions there were no walls or ceilings from which to bounce the flash and full automatic mode for the camera seemed….well….non-experimental. As such I had made up my mind that I would shoot in my preferred mode of Aperture Priority and use the flash to help lift shadow or even tones as I saw fit.

The results were interesting if nothing else…

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I knew that full-power flash would not work at all. Period. No way. No how. And I do know enough about the workings of my flash such that I could change it’s output (up or down), which I did. I experimented with different settings: -1/3, -1/1, -1&2/3, etc. until I found a setting that didn’t completely wash out her skin tones or create shadows on the leaves behind her. This was actually quite a bit of fun for me, experimenting and all that, but not so much for the daughter, who had to remain in the same position while I took multiple shots of her at different flash power settings.

In the end I believe that the non-flash images are fine on their own. I do not think she is underexposed or that the images are too dark in general (it was really overcast and being November the sun doesn’t get very high in the sky anyway). As a matter-of-fact, I think lifting the shadows with the flash unit removed a bit of the three dimensional quality that comes from the aid of shadows. However, and in defence of my efforts, I think the flash versions came out far, far better than I had any right to imagine. Some are better than others, but on the whole I think the flash versions stand up in their own right and that there are other pictures not yet uploaded to Flickr whereby the flash version was definitely better.

Upon getting home and going through the pictures I was quite nervous. I was, at first, wowed by my results. They were, on the whole, far better than I had anticipated, especially considering the so many firsts that were involved on this shoot. But I was afraid that as days passed and I looked at the images more closely I would find fewer and fewer with which I was pleased. However, I’m very happy to report that as time went by I became even more pleased and proud of my results.

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In addition, after my wife had an opportunity to view them she passed along a compliment, which both warmed my heart and surprised me as she usually doesn’t make too many comments (much less compliments) about my photography endeavor. She said something to the effect that it seems to her that I have improved upon my framing and composition as the months have passed. I’ll take that, thank you very much!

Finally, there was one flaw with many of the images taken with the flash and that was of reflection in the daughter’s eyes. Granted, as the power-output was low the reflections weren’t overwhelming, but simply distracting: a little pinpoint of light on an otherwise lovely brown. To remedy this situation I took advantage of the clone stamp in my oft-used JPEG editing software, Paint.Net (freeware). Problem solved!

So there you have it. Work with a model. Flash work outside my usual comfort zone. Utilizing photo-editing software for something other than tweaking and conversion to JPEG. A grand adventure in every manner and one which I greatly enjoyed not just because I obtained results with which I am so pleased, but because it was truly a great way to spend an afternoon with the daughter.