Friday, August 12, 2016

I Am A Moron

Hi, I'm Mike and I'm a moron. See the guy in the image below? That was how I felt last month when one of my hard drives began to act up and was making funny noises. No problem, thought I. I'll eject it, unplug it, plug it back in, and go from there.

Bad move. When I plugged it back in, all it would do was make clicking, whirring noises and my Mac would not recognize its existence.

I panicked. This was the 3TB hard drive that had all of my images from this past year. Everything. All the RAW images, processed JPG's, TIFF files for making large prints.  All the hours and hours of images from my telescope's CCD camera. Every Florida State football game with thousands and thousands of game images including the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, every men's basketball game, every women's basketball, the entire FSU baseball season, volleyball, soccer. All of my images from Madrid and Barcelona. Studio photo shoots.

Could this really be happening? Over an entire year of work gone from one minute to the next?

I called every local computer place in town. Nobody could help as none of them have a clean room in which to assess the situation and perform data recovery. Finally, I found a data recovery place with great reviews. I contacted them and shipped the drive off that morning. I felt better. They would surely be able to help me. I figured even if there was some damage to the drive they would be able to recover most of the images.

So I waited. They called back after a week. The drive needed new parts. They would install them so they could get it running and then perform a ghost image of the contents to see if any data was recoverable. Progress, I thought.

Time passed. I had heard nothing. Then I got a call - the drive was running and the ghost image was 85% finished. They still couldn't tell me if any data would be recovered but I was certain it would all turn out OK.

Until yesterday. That's when I got the email. No data was recoverable. They were very sorry and were returning the drive. It should make a nice desktop paperweight. And a vivid reminder of what a moron I am.

The reason I'm a moron is because I was lazy. As I was downloading cards to the hard drive and processing away I was not backing up the images on a second drive. The same goes for a couple of other hard drives that I had never gotten around to backing up. I told myself that I would eventually get around to backing all of them up but I just never got around to it. How stupid was that?

The lesson has been learned. Very painfully, but it has been learned. I've gone back and made sure every hard drive is backed up.

But, everything I've done for the last year or more is gone. Well, most of it. I will be able to retrieve all the Florida State sports images I turned in to a client that has them all in the cloud. That will get me all of the processed game JPG's for FSU football, basketball, etc. I can go to Facebook, Google+ and my website and copy/save all the photos I uploaded into galleries on those sites but those will all be 72dpi, 1600 pixel on the along end, watermarked images that will never make any kind of print. But at least it's something.

If you have never backed up your images, don't be a moron like me. Go out, pick up one or two drives and back everything up. When you least expect it, a hard drive failure can wipe out all of your work in one fell swoop.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Grunge It

One of my favorite effects for images is what's commonly known as "grunge". It has a desaturated, grainy, textured look that adds mood and mystery to an otherwise tame image. It lends itself to images of athletes and I use it frequently when processing athlete composites.

Throw in some dramatic lighting, layer the image of the athlete over a background that adds context and drama to the image, and a transformation from mundane to eye catching takes place.

Several times after posting some of my grungy, composite images I've been asked how I create this effect in my images. I'll walk you through one process I use but first some background.

I've had the great fortune to learn how to create grunge composites using athlete images from Joel Grimes who not only pioneered this look but who has taken it to levels that I try to imitate but never with anything remotely close to the same results. The man is color blind so you would think that would be a major impediment to creating his incredible composites but his imagination and vision is unparalleled. I know that my end product will never measure up to his images but with every attempt I get a little better.

I've used the grunge effect on images other than sports composites and in many cases it seems to work well. I've tried it on landscapes, street images, informal portraits, studio images, and many other images I've taken.

Images that lend themselves particularly well to the effect are portraits (formal or informal) of older men with weathered faces.

Now for the nitty gritty, so to speak.

There are a lot of ways to create the grunge effect and it can be as mild or as heavy handed as your taste desires. The grunge effect I typically use is distinguished from another kind of grunge effect where an image is layered over a grungy-like textured background and the opacity of the main image is reduced to allow some of the background grunginess to come through. Here are some examples.

You can create the grunge effect I use in Photoshop, using layers and several of the tools in the program that allow you to transform any image into one with the grunge feel. If you're not interested in devoting that much time and effort into processing, you have another option - OnOne Software's Perfect Effects Photoshop plug-in. Follow along as I show you an easy way to create a grunge composite using Perfect Effects. 

Let's do something unconventional and use a portrait of a woman to create the composite. Normally, I don't want to detract from a woman's beauty by adding grain, heavy contrast, and lots of clarity but I'll go out on a limb and see what happens. I'll start with the background.

I opened the background image in Photoshop. It's a beach wedding scene and you'll see why in a minute.

I clicked on the "File" tab at the top, scrolled down to "Automate", and sent the image to OnOne's Perfect Effects (in this case, it's a module within my Perfect Photo Suite but it's also available as a stand alone plug-in).

On the left side of the screen where the Perfect Effects menus is located, I went to the Grunge tab and opened it to reveal the various options. I selected "Arkham", a dark, grungy preset. and clicked on "Apply" to apply the effect and send the image back to Photoshop with the grunge look.

Now for the model. Before I open that image, a few notes. I shot the image with using some dramatic lighting. I used strip soft boxes slightly behind the model on either side to create a rim light highlight all around her. A beauty dish was set up high and left, at an angle to her face, for my key light. A 4'x8' soft box was positioned in front ant to the right as the fill light. The key light was metered at f11, the fill light at f8, and the strip soft boxes at f5.6. Two additional lights were used to blow out the white seamless paper background metered at f16. These lights reflected some light onto the model's back creating an additional source of rim lighting.

OK, now let's open the image. Why, it's a model in a wedding dress! Fits pretty well with our beach wedding background, huh?

As with the background, I sent it to Perfect Effects and applied the Arkham effect.

I used the Quick Selection Tool to "select" the model and refined the selection using the Edge Detection brush to remove the white background from the tricky areas like the area around the hair, lace, etc.

I then reduced the opacity of the OnOne grunge layer (when the image is sent back to Photoshop from Perfect Effects, it comes back as a separate layer) down to 50% so it wasn't so harsh on the model. If it wasn't a woman, I might or might not reduce the opacity of this layer.

Next, I dragged the image of the model onto the background layer.

From a composition standpoint, I thought it would look better to flip her image horizontally so I used "Edit - Transform - Flip Horizontal" to do so. I then positioned her to my taste.

The next step was reducing the opacity of the background. I didn't want it to detract from the model so I created a duplicate background layer, reduced the opacity of the duplicate background layer, hid the original background layer, and flattened the image.

Because the model's image did not fill the entire frame on the background, I cropped the image at the top to remove the excess background.

Here's the final image.

All in all, it takes approximately fifteen minutes from start to finish. As you go along, adjustments can be made to taste, such as making the grunge effect on the subject more or less prominent. The same goes for the background.

Perfect Effects is available as a download and you can try it out for free before committing to buying it. You can buy just the Perfect Effects module for $59 or the entire suite of software for $109. I've been using their software for years and don't know what I'd do without it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Speed Light Soft Box Diffusers - Portrait Lighting And More

Last week, I had to do a head shot photo shoot of all the personal trainers for a Gold's Gym location and it took place inside the facility as the trainers took their breaks in between sessions with clients. In finalizing the details for the shoot, I was told that I had to set up and tear down quickly using a minimal amount of gear in order to avoid being in the way of customers using the equipment to work out.

For a shoot involving portrait head shots I would normally grab a couple of cases containing monolights, some light stands, a couple of soft boxes, a beauty dish, and a background stand with a roll of seamless white or gray paper.  I was told not to bring that. "Just bring a flash", they said.

That was not an option for me. I know what portrait/head shot images look like when taken with "just a flash". The images look like crap because the lighting is not flattering to the subjects and no one is happy with the results. But clients don't know that. To them, as long as there's enough light to take a photo, that should be fine. As a a professional, I know better. Plus, my reputation is on the line and the last thing I want is for people to judge me by inferior images I created, even if the client unintentionally handicapped my efforts.

Forced to compromise, I resorted to a quick, easy (and cheap) alternative to my usual studio lights - speed lights with small soft box diffusers.

A couple of years ago, I was strolling through Best Buy and stumbled across these small speed light soft boxes that fold flat for storage and attach securely to any brand of speed light with an elastic velcro strap. I found two in open boxes and couldn't pass them up for $15 apiece. I didn't know if I would ever use them but for $30 for the pair I thought they might come in handy someday.

Since then, I've used them a lot. When shooting grip and grin events, these are my go-to speed light  attachments. I can angle the flash 45 degrees up and bounce the light off a ceiling or shoot straight at the subjects. Either way, the light that reaches them is soft and shadows behind subjects are virtually eliminated.

During a recent event, I used the soft box on a speed light, mounted the speed light on the hot shoe of my camera body, and pointed the soft box directly at my subjects. I was afraid that the speed light wouldn't be able to diffuse the light sufficiently to light up all the subjects in this image but it was absolutely no problem for this little soft box. There are no shadows behind the subjects, little if any light fall off, and the light is flattering, all things considered.

But a head shot photo shoot was an altogether different challenge. Would these little soft boxes do the job,  give me the image quality I strive for, while at the same time allowing me to use a minimal amount of gear?

These are examples of the end result from the photo shoot at Gold's Gym. Head shot portraits of some of the staff taken with two speed lights and two of the Best Buy speed light soft boxes.

Because space was at a premium, I did not use a background stand or seamless paper for the shoot. However, I did use a couple of light stands to set up the speed lights. Although I packed a stand and paper roll (just in case there was no suitable background), after arriving on location I found a gray wall that was out of the way and which served as a perfect background.

Positioning the subjects 5 feet away from the wall, I set up the lights at 45 degree angles on either side of the subjects. I set the speed lights to Manual mode, used a flash meter to test the exposure, and first metered the speed light on the left (my key light). I adjusted its power and distance from the subject until the meter read f8.0. I then did the same with the speed light on the right (my fill light) until the meter read f5.6. If I had wanted to really simplify things I might have been able to use a reflector for the fill instead of the second speed light but a reflector would have taken more room so I went with two lights.

So, if you're ever confronted with a portrait shoot where space is a premium, if you choose to do a shoot with a minimal amount of gear, or if you simply want to dabble in studio portrait photography and don't want to spend a lot of money, give these small soft boxes a shot. Even with the speed light strobist craze that has jacked up the price of used speed lights, brand name speed lights are still available on the used market. Since I prefer to use the lights in Manual mode, there are plenty of used Nikon SB24's, SB25's, SB26's, etc. available for $30-$50 apiece. Depending on the model, infrared triggers will remotely trigger them. If not, there are many inexpensive (but dependable) wireless triggers that work perfectly well.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Photo Gear I am Packing For Trips Abroad

Travel photography is something I thoroughly enjoy, and to me, foreign countries are fascinating from a photography standpoint. My fascination probably has a lot to do with having a chance to see things I don't ordinarily see in the U.S. I live in a relatively small town and I don't have the chance to wander around large cities with nothing to do but snap photos of anything that catches my eye. But when I travel abroad with my family, it's always to large cities with museums, cathedrals, old buildings, and lots of people. I end up with thousands of images simply by walking around with the family on our daily treks from cathedrals to palaces to museums to our apartment.

Deciding what photo gear to take with me when we travel abroad is always a dilemma for me. As I try to pick among camera bodies and lenses I have to keep reminding myself that I simply can't take everything that might conceivably come in handy for one thing or another. So, it becomes a delicate balancing act between packing what I know will get a lot of use as opposed to what might get a little useI would like to take, making sure the final selection will take a manageable amount of room in my carry-on bag.

So what do I take in the way of gear? In a perfect world with no limitations I'd love to grab my 400mm f2.8 prime lens, my 80-200mm f2.8 lens, my 17-35mm f2.8 wide angle, 15mm f2.8 fisheye, a 1.4X Teleconverter, and my 35-70mm f2.8 lens. I'd grab a couple of D3S camera bodies and my D800E, batteries, chargers, and load everything up in a roll aboard. But I can't get all this stuff into a bag that I can carry onto all planes and I refuse to check my photo gear, especially for international travel. So, I have to walk the tightrope and pick gear that will take as little space as possible. Here's my compromise.

This is my new best friend. It's a Mountainsmith camera case. It will fit inside any airline approved carry on bag, backpack, or messenger bag with room to spare. If Regional jets are in the cards, I can carry it on all by itself and it will easily fit in the overhead compartment of even the smallest Regional jet. The bag is a mere 14" wide, 11" tall, and 6" deep and comes with a bunch of velcro dividers, but more often than not I don't use them as they just take up space.

As a test for our upcoming trips I spent some time scrutinizing what gear I really, really wanted to take. I then set out to see if I could get all of it into this case. Success. Everything that I know I will use fits perfectly inside the case.

Here's what's included, starting at the top and working my way from left to right:
  1. Three camera straps, each with dog leash-style attachment clasps that attach to the camera bodies with Black Rapid fasteners screwed into the tripod threads - easy way to clip the cameras on and off when not in use
  2. 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 lens for the D800E - if I'm heading out with one camera/lens and size is not an issue, this is usually my choice - low noise, great zoom range for walking around and shooting people and things without having to get close, plus wide angle coverage for landscapes, etc.
  3. 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 lens - for both the D800E and either mirrorless camera body - longer reach than the 18-200mm and when used with the mirrorless bodies it becomes a 189-810mm monster but easily carried in a bag.
  4. 35-70mm f2.8 lens for the D800E - if I'm heading out in the evenings when light will be low, a good all around, small lens for the D800E
  5. Nikon D800E camera body with battery pack - for those 36 Megapixel landscape shots or super low light images where noise might be an issue
  6. 15mm f2.8 fisheye - one shot, super wide angle images inside cathedrals, palaces, etc. with the added uniqueness of the curvature the lens creates. That can be easily removed in post processing if I want a more conventional wide angle look
  7. 30-110 f3.8-5.6 Nikon1 lens - 81-297mm equivalent on either mirrorless body makes this a great alternative to the D800E/70-300mm combo while fitting in a jacket pocket
  8. Dust bulb/brush & cloth
  9. Battery charger for the D800E batteries
  10. 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 Nikon1 lens - 27-81mm equivalent on either mirrorless body makes a great alternative to the D800E/35-70mm combo while fitting in my pants pocket
  11. 10mm f2.8 Nikon1 lens - 27mm equivalent for either mirrorless body, a great alternative to the D800E/15mm fisheye inside cathedrals, palaces, etc. while fitting in my shirt pocket
  12. Nikon1 V3 and Nikon1 V2 camera bodies - small, mirrorless bodies that can be set to silent mode so no one knows you're shooting pictures, 50 frame/sec capability, 18.4 & 14.2 Megapixels respectively, and a whopping 2.7X crop factor for lenses
  13. Battery chargers for the Nikon1 V2 & V3
  14. Tenba Toolbox 8 case for the mirrorless gear
  15. Lens converters for the Nikon1 V2 & V3 which allows any Nikon lens to attach to the mirrorless bodies
Spare camera batteries, cards, and camera manuals are stored in the Tenba Toolbox and in the lid of the Mountainsmith case.

If I decide to do the minimalist thing and pack all my photo gear into one carry on bag that includes my laptop, passport, tickets, reading material, etc., then this is what I've decided to do.

I can simply reconfigure the Tenba Toolbox a bit, add the 70-300mm, and have a pretty comprehensive amount of gear ranging from the equivalent of a 27mm f2.8 lens for low light and wide angle shots to what is effectively a 200-800mm long zoom. If I take both camera bodies with me on any given day I can have one set up for wide angle shots and the other for zoom shots. Both cameras will easily fit in jacket pockets or a small bag and there's nothing I can't shoot. Admittedly I don't get the same  image quality as with my D800E but after experimenting with this setup in Spain last year I was pleasantly surprised - the cameras/lenses do remarkably well and are a lot easier to carry around.

For example, we went to the bullfights one night in Madrid. I was able to take a variety of shots, including wide angle ones to capture the pageantry of the event, mid zoom shots, and good, tight action shots, all with camera gear that fit in a very small, inconspicuous bag. That included the equivalent of 800mm focal length shots that were handheld, using the VR feature of the 70-300mm lens to help me with image stabilization.

The Nikon1's also did pretty well when just walking around Madrid and Barcelona taking a variety of shots, from indoor low light images to people images to scenery. The VR feature included in all the Nikon1 lenses made low light photography a snap, and when the necessary shutter speed was too slow for VR to make an image possible, I used some of my typical tricks to avoid camera shake (resting the camera on a column, chair, the floor, etc.)

I'll be shaking off the travel photography rust off with a long weekend in Montreal later this summer. That will give me another chance to put this gear through its paces before another jaunt across the pond. Hopefully someday technology will take us to the point where the small mirrorless bodies will rival the image quality of the large DSLR's. Unless the Montreal trip gives me any reason to question the results from Spain, I hope to be satisfied with what I've settled on while at the same time avoiding the nightmare of  lugging around a ton of gear.