The basketball season just ended in our community. It was a great one, though it was full of fits and starts because of the pandemic, and it kept me busy, and shooting really well.
All the sports action I shoot is made under existing light.
When sports scale back a bit, I have more time to concentrated on feature stories and photos, and I am almost always happier with my indoor feature photos if I include some flash.
I recently worked on two such features, one about Bladesmith Logan Morris, the other about Miss Oklahoma Kris Gonzalez. I photographed both of these people indoors under institutional fluorescent light, which is everywhere, from classrooms to businesses to warehouses. It is efficient in lighting these spaces, but can be somewhat unflattering to human faces.
To help with these images, I added some electronic flash. I almost always bounce the light from the flash into a wall, ceiling, or, if I am feeling particularly ambitious, a reflector. Bounce flash allows me to control the angle of the light striking the faces, as well as the color of the light.
Sometimes I add more electronic flash units to the lighting mix with a device called a slave unit, which is able to detect a flash and fire additional flash units simultaneously.
Also of note is the rise of ever-brighter, more efficient, more portable light emitting diodes (LEDs), that may soon replace electronic flash in many situations.
Finally, the Morris story is also one of contrasting worlds: a high schooler brings a knife to a small-town school and everyone is excited and proud of him. But imagine a similar situation at a big-city high school. A knife? Instant lockdown, call SWAT, send texts and social media posts saying to “shelter in place.”
It’s nice to know that small-town sensibility about such matters remains with us.
My wife Abby has been in the hospital for a couple of days. She’s getting better, and we hope she comes home tomorrow, but in the mean time, since I can’t visit her due to the pandemic, I have been fooling around with some Christmas Lights.
The weather and the light has been beautiful the past few days, so I took another crack at the neighbor’s irises. The light on these flowers filters through some trees, so it flashes in and out with the wind and the movement of the sun. The wind also blows the flowers around, so the whole thing is an exercise in patience. Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro.
I also wanted to try to make pictures with a photographer friend of mine using a couple of ancient process camera lenses, but ended up making some fairly creative images of them instead of with them. Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro.
My wife Abby and I have made many great photographs of each other over the years, both at our home in the bucolic splendor of Southern Oklahoma, and on our dozens of road trips over the years.
One session that stands out among them, and always makes me smile to view and remember, is “The Yard Session.” We shot these images on February 26, 2004 (thanks, EXIF data!) It was a warm late afternoon in our friend Michael‘s front yard in Norman, Oklahoma. The light was beautiful, and I’d asked Michael to photograph us with his Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro. His images are great, but the ones that stand out and bring us the fondest reminiscences are the ones we made of each other.
Abby photographed me with our Nikon Coolpix 885, and I photographed her with my Nikon D100 with the manual-focus 85mm f/2.0 lens. Because the D100 lacked an aperture indexing ring, it couldn’t talk to manual-focus lenses, so exposure was based entirely using histogram on the monitor on the back of the camera.
Images like this happen organically, often without planning or effort, and the result is a very natural, telling, intimate photography session.
Looking back on that moment more than 16 years ago, we were young and in love, engaged to be married, and so very happy. I hope these images show that.
Basketball season is in its peak, and my newspaper and I cover a lot of games. We have a great sports scene in our area, competitive and exciting.
I wondered as I was photographing one of those games last week, a tournament-heavy week with lots of games, how many photographers face the same thing I do all the time: overwhelming color casts in certain gyms.
In fact, there were at least six other photographers in last week’s mix: Steve Sisney, Josh Clough, Jeannie Neal, Courtney Morehead, Glen Bryan, and Lonny Dorman. I am always glad to see them.
The lighting problem comes from a combination of lights that are designed to be efficient (instead of color-neutral), and floor and ceiling colors that create a sort of color feedback loop. For example, several of the gyms I photograph have yellow school colors, painted on courts that are finished in yellowing varnish, reflected by yellowing ceiling tiles.
These are nice places to work, and I love the opportunity to work at these schools, but the color balance in my photographs requires some very aggressive correction. How do I do this?
I always, always shoot raw files. We in the photographic community probably preach about this too much, but it really is a game-changer. Raw files contain thousands or even millions of times more color values than standard JPEG files.
I don’t bother adjusting white balance in-camera, because…
I will use Adobe Lightroom to fix the color, first with the eyedropper tool, which I click on a neutral spot; sometimes this is all the fix I need. It’s pretty dramatic, actually, sometimes accompanied by the word, “wow.”
I use additional color adjustments in Lightroom’s excellent Hue/Saturation/Luminance (HSL) dialog, which allows me to change not only the amount of the offending color, but also the brightness and the hue of it. I can use this to take a bright lime green basketball court and make it appear a very natural pale tan.
The most important aspect of this, of course, is to create normal-looking skin tones of the players and fans. This can sometimes requires some very aggressive application of color sliders in Lightroom or Photoshop.
As tempting as it is to use the pop-up flash instead of existing light at these venues, you will always be happier with existing light for sports.
I see other people’s image from some of these places, and they all exhibit a common thread: difficult color balance. Take it from me: raw files plus aggressive editing can fix these problems, and result in very satisfying images.
Two rounds of thunderstorms rolled through our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night. The first one skirted us to the north, so from our point of view, we had an excellent view of the right flank of the storm. It was the first time in the last couple of years that all the factors came together for me to make good lightning photos: little or no rain at my site, a very electrically-active thunderstorm, a lack of obscuring rain on my side of the storm, and no danger of being struck by lightning.
It Does Happen
Years ago I was standing in my garage trying to photograph lightning when a bolt hit a tree across the pasture. Not only was it insanely loud and bright, a feeder of it made it to the garage. I was leaning on the metal door track at the time, and electricity passed through it into my right arm. I was lucky I wasn’t injured or even killed.
So, if we see a thunderstorm like this and want to photograph it, what do we need, and how do we do it? We need…
A camera with manual controls of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus
A sturdy tripod or other way to hold the camera rock-steady
A lens that will fill the frame with what we want to shoot (I know that’s vague, but stay with me.)
The patience of Job
Last night my wife and I saw and heard an approaching thunderstorm. At first I went out onto the back deck, but only made a few frames there and decided the storm, moving from my left to right looking north, was about to be hidden by the house, so I relocated to the front deck.
Using my Nikon D700, a 36x24mm sensor DLSR, I started with my 20mm, a very wide angle lens. Mounted on a tripod, I set the ISO at 400, my aperture at f/8, and my shutter speed at 20 seconds. My 20mm has a hard stop at infinity, which is where I set focus. (Don’t try to use autofocus – it will never bite on anything in the dark.)
At that point, the patience plays a big role. Unlike fireworks, traffic, or Christmas parades (all of which are photographing lights) thunderstorms are irregular and unpredictable, so by the time you get set up, it could be too late, or the timing could be just right. Last night was such a “just right” night.
Within five minutes I felt the storm had moved away from me sufficiently to warrant switching to a 50mm lens, and I felt I wanted a slightly darker product than I was seeing on the monitor, so I changed to f/11 at 30 seconds. The 50mm filled the frame with the densest part of the lightning, and I felt several images looked good.
With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.
To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.
Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…
I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.
While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.
I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…
Those who follow me on social media might recall that my current batch of students were disappointed that it rained during last week’s class, forcing us inside.
Tonight’s forecast is more likely to produce a sunset opportunity.
All photographers with any experience know that a good sunset can be difficult to pin down, and it’s always a smarter move to be ready to shoot sunrises and sunsets when they come to you, not when you come to them.
Readers also know that I like to use the sun itself as a compositional element, often trying to emphasize its brightness by choosing a lens that makes good “sunstars” at small apertures.
Judicious use of exposure compensation can make a huge difference, since your camera doesn’t know if you are going for shadow detail or highlight detail, and will often split the difference. Don’t be afraid to crank in +3 or -4 or any other value to tell the camera what you want. I’ve seen too many disappointing sunset attempts by photographers with disappointed faces asking me, “What did I do wrong?”
There is a lot to be said for sticking around after the sun dips below the horizon as well. The so-called “blue hour” can sometimes offer amazing color values as the sun’s light strikes clouds high in the atmosphere.
The light changes quickly at sunrise and sunset, so we need to be ready to change quickly as well.
As with any photograph endeavor, the best results are achieved through a willingness to explore and experiment, and the realization that not every evening will deliver magic, but with persistence, we can eventually capture magic and share it with our audience.
It’s Christmas time again, and with it we photographers find ourselves photographing something very pure to our imaging instincts: Christmas lights. Beautiful and dazzling to the eyes, we love photographing them for several reasons. They are everywhere, they are fun to shoot, and they summon the children inside us who looked on them with amazement all those years ago.
I think about this as I photograph lights for a living, and last night as I photographed the Christmas tree and lights at home. I did a fun little experiment that illustrates the value of mastering aperture: shooting the same scene at apertures through the entire range. It is powerfully illustrative of the effects of aperture…
Made with my 50mm f/1.8 lens, one of the best and most affordable lenses in anyone’s bag, these three images are identical except for aperture, which, as you can see, makes a huge difference. Wide open, the out-of-focus highlights are round, at f/2.8, they take on the heptagonal shape of the aperture blades, and at f/22, each bright point of light takes on the classic “sunstar” look.
All three of these unique looks has a place in our photography, and all are right there at our fingertips.
By now we should all be getting comfortable with concepts dealing with color, like white balance and saturation. If not, and I don’t mean this sarcastically at all, go back and look at your pictures of people, and ask yourself why most of their faces are too orange or too blue, which, in all honesty, they are. I say this based on the enormous number of images I see every day with bad flesh tones.
When you’re done with that, read on.
The other day I was scavenging an abandoned office at my workplace. I came across some Kodak Wratten filters (colored gels) in that search. These 3×3-inch plastic filters were originally used in by the production department to control the various renderings of the halftone products used to reproduce images in our newspaper. Despite the fact that they were damaged and obsolete, I decided I had a use for them: to change the color of light.
I brought them home and cobbled them together with clear tape. I was able to assemble a blue filter and a red-magenta filter, and I taped each one on a flash in my home studio.
I made a few images, and found I was glad to have this tool in my tool kit. Of course, you don’t necessarily need Wratten filters to change the color of the light. One excellent way to achieve this is by bouncing a flash into something colorful. Often one of the best items for this is the shiny foldable sunshade you see occasionally covering dashboards of parked cars on hot days. You can buy them with the other side in various colors, like red, gold or purple.
Altering the color of portions of your light can fundamentally change the look of your images, and the ability to do so is an excellent item to have in your bag. It can be a lot of fun, and it can throw some fuel on the embers of your creativity.
Two nights ago as I mowed, I watched, as I always do, the maturing light. About 20 minutes before sunset, with bands of clouds on the horizon, the sun peaked through and struck an early stand of my wife Abby’s favorite flower, Indian Paintbrush, in the pasture. I ran inside to grab a camera with my new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, and scampered back out to find that the bands of clouds had covered the sun and muted the light. I made a few images under the soft light, but really wanted the bright amber hues of the setting sun behind those flowers. Another day, maybe.
Then last night, I got an earlier start, and planned ahead by having my camera in the garage, readier to go. As sunset approached, I was able to make the image I originally pre-visualized.
As you can see from the results, both images are beautiful, but very different. They are both shot with the same camera, from the same spot, at the same time of day, with the same settings. The only difference is the light.
Like most professional photographers, I like equipment that is transparent. No, I don’t mean I want my cameras to be made out of clear plastic, though that might be really interesting. I mean that I want my equipment to get out of the way, do it’s job, and allow me to concentrate on the real meat of photography, the moment. I don’t want to worry about or struggle with my gear while the action and the intimacy and the light come and go. One lens I bought in 2011 in hopes of working within this paradigm is the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM for use on my Nikon DSLR cameras with their 15x24mm-sized sensors. I originally picked up this lens just prior to my sister’s wedding (link.) Since my wife and I were traveling to New Orleans for just the weekend, and since the wedding was entirely at night indoors, I wanted a lens that would fill my needs for that event: it would have to be fast-focusing, sharp wide open (f/2.8), have optical image stabilization, and be reasonably well-constructed.
Part of the reason I thought this Sigma might be a good choice was my success with a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX-DG I borrowed from Michael to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009 (link). I liked everything about the lens except that it wasn’t quite wide enough, and it wasn’t mine. It was sharp wide open, handled well, and made gorgeous 14-point sunstars when stopped down.
My very first field testing of the 17-50mm seemed to go well, but every lens is sharp at f/8. I didn’t spend $600 for this lens to shoot at f/8. I spent this money so I could take low light to its limits, and that would come just a couple of weeks later at the wedding.
Hosted by the New Orleans Athletic Club, the venue was gorgeous, but lit by just four incandescent chandeliers. I shot it all at ISO 3200, at f/2.8, which put me in the 1/60th to 1/125th of a second shutter speed range. This is the low-light margin that tests everything: sensor noise, optical stabilization, lens sharpness, and photographer’s skills. If any one of these factors falls short, image quality suffers, and this lens was the weak link. It just wasn’t sharp wide open, at f/2.8.
Michael and Abby were my second shooters, with the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lenses respectively, and their stuff was very sharp at apertures like f/2.5 and f/2.0.
One item I hit hard in my Intro to Digital Photographer class is white balance. This might seem like an obvious teaching point, but readers might be surprised by how many images submitted to my newspaper have ugly colors casts, particularly yellow and red. The wedding in New Orleans was lit entirely with incandescent lights, and using the appropriate white balance setting saved us a lot of headaches in post-processing.
In the end, my images from New Orleans were great, and my sister and new brother-in-law were very happy with them, but I wasn’t pleased with the Sigma, which stood out as the weak link. I have since shot a couple more weddings with the 17-50mm, and while the images were acceptable, I want more from a big, heavy, expensive lens.
I will look at options. My instinct is to shoot with my 12-24mm f/4 Tokina on one camera, and my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other, but that still doesn’t give me a one-camera travel wedding solution. It will need to be a zoom, and it will need to be wide-to-portrait length. One possibility is picking up a 24x36mm sensor-sized camera on Ebay like the Nikon D700, and using something like my Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8, which is heavy but absolutely dazzlingly sharp. The 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 24-105mm focal lengths on a 24x36mm sensor are approximately equivalent to the 17-50mm, 18-55mm lenses on a 15x24mm sensor. While this is a versatile field of view range, it also has the potential to be bland and boring, and requires us to push hard at the short and long ends to make our images really interesting.