Maine Photographic Workshop 2011

September 4-10, 2011

Learn to effectively see and use light to turn the ordinary image into exceptional. As digital cameras now have the capabilities to capture files with seemingly limitless possibilities in terms of tonal adjustments and layering, it becomes easy to lose oneself in the processing of images as opposed to the act of capturing images. Light can visually shape a story, enhancing the ability for the viewer to “read” a series of photographs. For more information please go here.

Fourth of July in New York

Fireworks in NYC. Panasonic GH2, 14-140mm lens at 17mm. ISO 160 f/13 at 45 seconds.

Here is my image from last night’s Macy’s fireworks’ display. I positioned myself on the sundeck at my gym, Chelsea Piers and shot north and west up the Hudson River. This fireworks display was incredible and very bright. I stopped down to f/14 and left the shutter open a little longer between the bursts so the adjacent pier would show detail. For this image the shutter was open for 45 seconds using the black card technique I described in my previous blog.. I included the pier because it gives the fireworks size perspective and a sense of location.

Photographing Fireworks

A fireworks exhibition in Las Vegas

Fireworks’ displays are the highlight of many celebrations in the United States. Cities feature these amazing light shows on New Year’s Eve, centennial events, and most notably, the 4th of July. Their various patterns and colors against the night background can produce stunning visual photographs – images that you can capture by following these easy steps:

Use a tripod and shutter release to keep the camera steady.
Set the ISO at 100-400 and the exposure on manual. (F/8 -11 is a good starting point at ISO 100).
Turn off the auto focus to prevent your lens from searching for a focus point in the black sky, and manually focus at infinity.
Turn off the lens stabilization; it doesn’t work well on a tripod.
Don’t use a wide lens or the bursts will appear very small in your frame.
Watch your framing, the fireworks usually explode higher than you think. It’s also nice to include buildings or vistas in the shot for scale and depth.

And now the big secret: lock your shutter open and hold a black card in front of your lens. When you see a good burst of color, remove the black card for a couple of seconds, then hold the black card over your lens again. Remove the card when you see another burst. Repeat this process of removing the card and releasing the shutter until you feel you have gotten a good set of bursts on that one frame. Usually three to five bursts per frame are enough.

Since fireworks are set off in very quick bursts, your shutter only needs to be open from 20-60 seconds to capture them. You can avoid delays in shooting your next frame by turning off the camera’s long exposure noise reduction. (See my previous blog on night photography to learn more about noise reduction) It is important to shoot as much as you can at the beginning of the fireworks’ display. As the show goes on, smoke builds up from the explosions, which gives the sky a hazy look.

Enjoy the spectacle and have a safe celebration.

Working at Night

Panasonic GH2 7-14mm lens at 9mm. ISO 160, 6 seconds f/10

The "Hole"

When the sun goes down don’t put your cameras away, instead grab your tripod and enter a new world of imagery. I’ve been doing ‘night’ shots for many years and the key to making great night photos is simple – don’t wait until it’s totally dark, unless you are planning on photographing stars. If you are shooting landscapes or city scapes, a black sky will not work. Immediately after sunset, a diligent photographer can take advantage of the ten minute window when the sky has a warm glow and there’s still enough light to help illuminate your landscape. You can find color in the sky after sunset; the secret is knowing where to look.
The eastern sky turns cobalt blue while the western sky, where the sun sets will acquire nice pink and blue tones. Of course much of the color is dependent upon atmospheric factors: cloud cover, smog, dust, water particles in the air and the time of year.

When shooting a cityscape with buildings, the lights in the windows add even more depth to your final photo. The best time of year for these shots is in the winter when the sun sets before five or six o’clock and everyone is still at work. In the summer, city scapes can be problematic because the sun sets between seven to ten pm (depending on how far north you are),and because most workers are out of their buildings, the office lights are turned off.

It is best to use a tripod when shooting at night, even though you can set your digital camera to ISO 6400 and hand hold it with a fast lens. With a tripod you can stay at a low ISO and get a good quality file. The higher ISO will give you a lot of noise and that noise will be accentuated in the shadow areas in your image.

Here are some quick tips for night shooting:
• Use a sturdy tripod; a small tripod extended to the max is not stable.
• Use a cable release so the camera doesn’t move when you press the shutter. If you don’t have a cable release, trip the shutter using the self timer.
• Use a low ISO.
• Pick the sharpest lens aperture; it’s usually two to three stops down from wide open.
• Be careful that your camera meter does not take its reading directly off of a highlight or shadow.
• Although you will usually be set at infinity, be aware of where the camera is focusing.
• If the meter reading and the focus are a problem, take the camera off automatic. Use manual focus and manual exposure.
• Lock up your camera’s mirror. The motion of the mirror going up and down can cause camera shake.
• Finally, turn on the camera’s long exposure noise reduction.
There is debate among photographers as to how efficient this is. Some like to use the noise control in Photoshop. My opinion is that the camera does a better job. The downside is that after you take your photo, the camera does another ‘dark frame’ for the same amount of time as your original exposure, which results in a delay before you can take the next picture. The delay is caused by signal to noise ratios and the size of sensor sites; much too technical for the purposes of this blog. (If you want to learn more about it you can do a search.)

Technical aspects aside, shooting at night requires common sense. Get to the location early so you can scout it out and find a good position. Bring a flashlight; by the time you are done it’s going to be dark. Even better than a flashlight, wear a head lantern which frees up your hands. I recall an assignment in Utah when I went out on my own to do a night landscape. The area was quite remote and I had to carry all of my equipment down a steep and slippery path in the dark. There was no cell phone service and had I tripped or fallen and injured myself, I would have been in a lot of trouble. The lesson: don’t go out alone.

For this photo of ground zero in New York City looking west, I got to my location very early. I was shooting from a building under construction and I had to wear boots, a hardhat and an orange vest. I also had an escort with me from the building developer. Our first obstacle was that the construction elevator wasn’t running because it was the end of the day for the construction workers. We had to walk up ten flights of steps with my equipment to get to the right position. The second and almost deal killing obstacle was that in New York as in most cities, safety regulations require that buildings under construction be wrapped in netting to prevent construction material from flying below. This netting was so fine that I couldn’t place my lens through it. I thought my photo was not going to happen until I noticed that various sections of the netting were fastened together with locking cable ties. When I asked my escort if I could cut open a few of these ties, he was skeptical. Finally, he granted me permission on the condition that I close the netting with cable ties when I finished shooting. If I was going to take this picture, I needed to find cable ties; an item that I have plenty of in my studio but none in my camera bag, here on the tenth floor. Having come this far and high up, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. I canvassed the construction bins around the various floors of the site, like a homeless person sifting through garbage cans. Ultimately I got lucky and found a box of cable ties. The photo was going to happen.

The sun went down that evening around 8:22PM. But since I was shooting west into the sunset, balancing the bright sky with the unlit, memorial fountain and barely lit trees wasn’t possible. The sky was darker by 8:40PM but the exposure for the dark shadows in the trees was going to render the sky too bright. Although it would have been easier looking into the darker, eastern sky that angle and direction wouldn’t give me the composition I was going for. It wasn’t until 9:00PM that the light came together and I was able to start taking the pictures I wanted. Working in the dark can be an enlightening experience.

Alaska through the lens of Panasonic’s Compact System Cameras

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I have been editing and processing the photos I shot two weeks ago on my ‘workshop/cruise’ through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. On that trip I took no Canon equipment; I only had the Lumix cameras that were loaned to me by Panasonic. Although I was impressed by their autofocus and the lack of shutter delay, it took me awhile to get used to viewing through the Electronic Viewfinder because the highlights appear to look blown out. I also needed to adjust to the ergonomics of the Panasonic bodies which differ from Canons. Eventually however the cameras started to feel good in my hands and I was able to have fun shooting photos from the ship and in the bouncing, Zodiac boats.

I had three Panasonic cameras with me: the GF2 which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the GH2 and a prototype of the recently announced G3. One thing is certain – these cameras and their lenses are all very small, light and compact. I use the GF2 as a walk around camera with the 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. Many of the images I shot on this trip were with the longer zoom lenses, the 14-140, 45-200 and 100-300. Since the sensor on these cameras is half the size of a ‘full sized’ sensor, the focal lengths of the lenses can effectively be doubled. Consequently, I’m working with varied length optics that are much smaller than what I’m used to carrying. The downside is that the lenses are a bit slow, usually varying between f4-5.6, but still usable by boosting the ISO and keeping the stabilizers on.

The experience of working with any new cameras, whether going large to medium format ( as I did a couple of months ago) or going small with the Panasonics is like being a kid with new toys!. It’s exhilarating. Although the G3 is slightly larger than my “GF2 walk around camera” it acts like a grownup camera. It has the same sensor as the GH2 and is just as responsive and as fast. Panasonic addressed some of the issues I’ve had with the GH2 in the G3, specifically the inability to turn off the focus point on the LED screen so that it cannot change position if you accidentally touch it. The battery life in the G3 is much improved over the battery life in the GH2, even though it’s using the smaller battery found in the GF2.

The quality of the raw files from the GH2 and the GF2 cameras was beyond what I expected. I processed the files using Lightroom and used its fabulous noise reduction when I was working at above ISO 800. The raw files were running slightly red which was easily fixed. Unfortunately I can’t address the G3 raw files at this time. The camera is so new that neither my Adobe nor Capture 1 products will process them. I did get a disk with a new version of Panasonic’s raw processor but it currently only works on a windows platform, which is not in my Mac workflow. I shot full size JPEGS+ Raw on the G3 with the intention of processing the raw files in the immediate future. However the G3 jpegs looked very good, once I added some sharpening and clarity to them. As this was a prototype and I rarely shoot jpegs, I was at the whim of the camera’s processing algorithm.

Many of the photo enthusiasts on the ship were working with much larger Nikons and Canons and were intrigued by my new set of equipment and my initial fumbling through various buttons. They wanted to play with my “new toys”. By the second day I was handling the equipment like a pro.

Panasonic’s GF-2: Small Camera Big Benefits

Beach Florida Keys 14mm lens ISO 200

I’ve been shooting for the past few months in various situations with the Panasonic Lumix GF-2 mirrorless DSLR and I’m very impressed with the camera. It is responsive, the autofocus is quick and accurate and the shutter lag is minimal. Its small size, definitely a plus has made it my ‘always have with me’ camera. Most of the time I’ve used it with the 14mm, 2.5 pancake lens (28mm equivalent) but a couple of weeks ago the folks at Panasonic sent me the 20mm, 1.7 lens (40mm equivalent) and a small, electronic viewfinder that slides into the camera’s hot shoe. This combination works well for my purposes, although it took some time for me to get accustomed to using an electronic viewfinder. I like shooting with a viewfinder because I can hold the camera steadier when I press it against my face as opposed to extending the camera away from me to look at the LCD. Although I usually shoot with a full frame 22 megapixel camera, the file quality on the GF-2’s half size 12 megapixel sensor looks very good and I feel comfortable at an ISO setting at 1200. And with the noise controls in the recent Photoshop and Lightroom raw converters, it’s possible to work with this camera at even higher ISO ‘s.

20mm lens at f/2 ISO 1000 mixed light

Crop of face. Some noise reduction added in Lightroom

My main concern with the GF-2 and the larger GH-2 model is that there is no way to lock the LCD touchscreen’s focus point. If you pick up the camera and touch the LCD while it’s active, there is a good chance that you will move the focus point. I’ve talked with Panasonic about this issue and hopefully the problem can be solved in a future firmware update. And the new Panasonic G3 prototype camera I’m currently testing does have a menu function that will lock the focus point.

Over the years I’ve carried many point and shoot cameras but with their tiny sensors and built in zoom lenses, they’ve never reached the quality level that is needed to publish large images in magazines. For a non professional camera, you can count on the GF-2 to produce a high quality image. I’ve made several nice 17×22 inch prints from this camera with files shot at ISO 800 but as with any camera, large print quality is dependent on many factors besides ISO, including using a tripod at slower shutter speeds and picking the sharpest f stop for your particular lens. Panasonic offers many interchangeable, zoom lenses for the GF-2 however some are larger than the camera. For my purposes of a ‘carry with you camera’ I prefer the 14mm or 20mm pancake lenses. An added plus of using this camera with the small lenses is that you don’t look like a professional and you can get into photographic situations where being a ‘pro’ may cause issues.

With Spring upon us the urge to grab your cameras and get out and shoot is great. On a recent morning while I walked to the gym, I passed by an unusually vibrant bed of tulips, not a typical site in my Manhattan neighborhood. I grabbed the GF-2 out of my pocket and though I had the 14mm lens on the camera, I was able to get in close to one of the flowers (yes these lenses focus close) and make a lovely image.

The camera with you is the best camera you have and the GF-2 is the best camera you can always have with you.

Tulip shoot with the 14mm Pancake lens ISO 100

A Cooler Full of Strobes

Pack and spare battery in the hotel

Keeping warm in the snow

In an earlier blog, I mentioned a trip to the Arctic that ultimately had to be postponed due to adverse weather conditions. I needed snow but in November and December it rained. In January I was traveling to the bottom of the globe in Antarctica but now in April, I am finally shooting outside of Iqaluit, Nunavut in the northernmost reaches of Canada. The temperature has been hovering around -22C with winds blowing at 20-30 kph. Although keeping personally warm is paramount, my bigger concern is keeping my battery operated gear from freezing. Fortunately my Canon 5D Mark IIs have been operating really well, although I do warm a few extra batteries with my body heat inside of my coat, in the event I need to change them. My biggest concern however has been my battery operated strobes, essential pieces of equipment that I need for the photo I am here to shoot.

I am using the Profoto Acute Bs, a six hundred watt second pack that has always been reliable. But in this extreme climate I worry that the cold may quickly drain the batteries. Fortunately I brought along Alex Stricker, my friend and fellow photographer to lend a hand. Dragging Alex from the warmth of Phoenix to the cold of the Arctic took some creative coaxing and it was well worth it. Besides his photographic abilities Alex is incredibly talented when it comes to building and prepping anything needed for a complicated shot. In this case, we needed to find a way to keep the Profoto batteries warm and Alex as usually came up with a creative solution.

We bought a midsized, styrofoam cooler (rather ironic for our geographical location) and lined the insides with the eight hour, hand warmer packets I had brought from New York. We placed the strobe unit and two spare batteries inside of the cooler, notched out a hole on the lid, and ran the cable through it to the strobe head. To provide additional insulation, we lined the bottom of the cooler with a silver, space blanket. Before I took the cooler into the cold I walked fifty feet down my hotel corridor with my pocket wizard radio tripper to ensure the strobe would fire. It did.

We felt like we were setting up for a tailgate party when we finally brought the cooler outside only instead of fall football weather, it was -23 C, dog sledging weather. But our heated cooler worked great. We were able to get approximately 150 full power shots off each battery and when we finished shooting, the inside of the cooler was still nice and warm; a lot warmer in fact than either Alex or I.

The New DSLR Video Killers

Sony NEX-FS100U in New York

Sony NEX-FS100U on Mark Forman's car mount


Photos by Mark Forman

I’ve been shooting several assignments in the last month and my focus has literally been on my work. Consequently, I have not been blogging. But discovering and reviewing new equipment always brings me back to the blog. The recent buzz among photographers and videographers is the upcoming large chip video cameras. It was bound to happen eventually; video cameras that use the large chips found in Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras have entered the market. I was fortunate enough to view some video from one of these cameras and it was stunning.

Panasonic started shipping it’s AF100 camera that uses a four thirds sensor at the end of 2010 and a few days ago, Sony announced that the NEX-FS100U NXCAM Super35 camera which uses the larger APS-C sensor will ship at the end of June. This is the same sensor found in the Sony F3 video camera; the camera that tops videographers’ wish lists. The Sony F3 camera sells for around $15,000, while the new Sony FS100U will sell for under $7000 with an 18-200mm lens (27-300 equivalent). I look for Panasonic and Canon to announce their own cameras in this category at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Las Vegas in April. Will these new cameras mean the end of video for DSLRs? Probably not the end, but certainly a change for many people.

When Canon DSLRs first added video capability I found the ergonomics awkward. Although the video they produced looked great, these cameras were difficult to handle unless you were willing to spend thousands of dollars on rails, monitors, and other accessories that would turn your little, hand held digital still camera into a monster. Adding this equipment however never corrected the inherent sound problems of shooting with a DSLR. You still needed a separate sound recording device. Because of these limitation I never felt comfortable making anything less than simple films with my DSLR equipment.

The footage I viewed came from the Sony NEX-FS100U. It was shot by my friend Mark Forman, a New York City cinematographer who was testing a prototype of the Sony camera. Mark, who had been producing videos during the past few years with his Canon cameras explained some of the great features of the Sony. He told me the native ISO for the camera is 800 and the night footage that I saw which he shot at 2400 ISO, had very little noise. Even though Canon cameras produced low noise when used for still images, he cautioned that they do show noise when they are used for video capture at the higher ISOs. Mark still loves his Canons, but says “they are a tool designed for stills that shoot video”. The Sony is a true video camera with a monitor and good sound capabilities. It also accepts professional cables. Mark noted the NEX-FS100U has less color aliasing and moiré than the Canons in the video mode. He prefers the Sony’s codec (video compression signal) because it simplifies the video editing workflow as opposed to the codec in the DSLRs which adds an extra step. Additionally, the new Sony allows you to record directly into an external recorder with a much less compressed digital. The Sony’s E mount for lenses and adapters gives you the added option to use most still and motion picture lenses on the camera.

The bottom line is if you are traveling light and on a limited budget, you can make simple films with your DSLR. But if your desire is to make narrative films or documentaries, this new generation of lower priced, large chip video cameras is the way to go. I asked Mark if he would continue to use his Canons for video, he smiled and said “sure, when I need a crash camera”. Here is the test footage Mark shot with the prototype camera.

Here are some links with more information: Film and Digital Times and a promo film from Sony.

Preparation is the Key to a Successful Shoot

What to take and how to pack it

Some of the followers of my recent blog on rolling camera cases were curious about the equipment I had packed into my Temba Universal, shown in the blog’s photograph. They wanted to know how I decide on what equipment I might need, how I organize my shoots and what kind of pre production is required before heading out.
Obviously, every assignment is different but my basic preparation is always the same. Research is essential, whether it’s the location, subject matter, availability of gear, or local customs and requirements. The following is typical of how I approach an assignment.

I happen to be on my way to the Florida Keys to do a portrait of a scientist for an upcoming National Geographic project. Although my subject lives in coastal California, I need to photograph him standing in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida is warmer than Long Island and the waters along the Keys are calm, with little surf and easy to access. Islamorada looked like a good location and it’s not too far from Miami. Besides, shooting in Florida gets me away from the frigid winter in New York.
From past experience, I knew that a permit is usually required by a park commission, county, state or city for photo shoots on beaches. A couple of weeks prior to leaving New York, I contacted the information officer with the Florida Film Commission who set me up with their film liaison person for the Florida Keys. She agreed that Islamorada had some nice beaches and quiet waters. Google gave me satellite views of a good looking, public beach controlled by the city of Islamorada and a private beach in front of the Islander Resort that also had potential. I talked with the people from the city and the hotel and explained that I needed to do a still photo that would include me, my lighting assistant and my subject. I told them that I would be setting up a couple of light stands and a tripod. There would be no need for a generator since my lights would be battery operated. I wanted to distinguish what I was doing from a large motion picture shoot, or a big fashion production with mobile homes, generators, stylists and large crews. Both the city and the resort needed a certificate of my insurance naming them as coinsured for the time I was shooting. This was an easy process, accomplished via email between me and my insurance carrier.
Once the location logistics were under control, I could focus on the equipment I would need to make the picture work. I decided to bring two Profoto 600B battery strobe units that put out 600 watt seconds of power and two flash heads. I also brought extra batteries, though I don’t anticipate needing them. My battery strobe units are very efficient, but it’s always better to be on the safe side. The lighting look I am going for requires a small Octabank and a small Chimera light box, both of which give a nice, broad soft source of light. Once I get to the location I’ll decide which one will be my main light source, as each has its own nuances. I don’t want a light bank that’s too large and will spread out on the water; I want the light focused on my subject. To further control the mood, I packed ‘eggcrates’, a grid that goes in front of the boxes to help focus my light. My other light will have a standard reflector or a Profoto sports reflector which produces a narrow beam of hard light. This head and reflector will be positioned right by the camera, and will control contrast from the light of the softbox which will be off to the side of the subject. The lights will be triggered using pocket wizards.

Since Miami has a lot of camera stores and rental houses, I don’t have to be as careful about what I bring as I would if I were going to a remote location. I plan on renting my light stands and some grip equipment. Carrying large C-stands on an airplane is a nightmare and expensive. I already told the rental house that since one of the stands may be in the water, I would rent one that was pretty beat up. Though I could probably rent everything I needed in Miami, I feel more comfortable using my own equipment whenever possible.
The strobes, heads, and extension cables fit nicely into a large, rolling Pellican case that weighs 60 pounds –the airlines aren’t so friendly with anything greater than 70 pounds. My extra batteries (which are heavy), reflectors, pocket wizards and some grip equipment fit into a medium sized Pelican case. My tripod, Octabank and Chimera, along with a boom pole that breaks down into three pieces fit nicely into the bottom of the duffle bag that holds my clothing. I was able to eliminate the need for an additional, lightstand type case and to pack everything into three checked cases – very efficient packing.
My cameras, of course are on the plane with me in the new Tenba rolling bag I discussed in the last blog. As I was going through security at La Guardia airport, I was asked to put my new rolling bag in the test template – it fit with room to spare.