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Archive for April, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jen!

Apr 30

In Birthdays at 2:14pm

I know, I know, a day late and a dollar short. Or several days late. Sigh…story of my career. The Jen in question is Jen Concepcion, wife of RC, of Kelby Media, that over the top Klingon we all know and love. Jen and RC are among the sweetest, most decent people my wife Annie and I have encountered in this business. Jen is also a terrific ballerina who helped us out on a recent shoot. (Helped us out? Try, saved our lives.) She agreed to come to the beach in dance togs at the last minute with the sun screamin’ for the horizon and us desperate to get a shot for our first video training session on lighting we did for Scott and Co.

We zoomed out there, threw up an Elinchrom medium Octa to camera right, metered the sky, made a WAG (wild ass guess) about the f-stop and Jen started leaping. Typical of a perfectionist ballerina, she lamented at not being able to gain any height on the soft sand.

Right, Jen. And the rest of us out here who jump like we’ve got lead in our shorts, what are we supposed to do?

On another shoot dedicated to SB 800 speedlights, we went to an old theater in Clearwater, and did some more ballerina type stuff. This went off with a 3×3 Lastolite panel camera left above Jen, with 2 speedlights into it, and another SB off a Lastolite white diffuser on the floor next to her, camera left.

Happy Birthday Jen! And congrats on the coming baby! Even though you are pregnant, trust me, you can still out leap just about everybody.

In Dubai….more tk.

Venice Has Legs….

Apr 28

In On Location, Seminars & Workshops at 11:32pm

Leaving beautiful Venice. Great week, as one would expect in this incredible place. Last year, when I taught here, we wandered in as a group to the Ostaria Sora al Ponte, a small eatery at the foot of one of the myriad bridges. I literally can’t recall laughing that hard, that long. The gentlemen who run the place, Marino and Mario, should take their more than slightly tipsy act to Vegas. They would be headliners in a heartbeat. Marino runs the front of the shop, Mario cooks. Collectively, they tipple their way through the day, laughing, tweaking, debating and generally disapproving of their customers if said customers appear cautious, quiet, sober or don’t want any dessert. If you are wise, you go with the flow and get into the spirit(s) of the establishment, and kiss your sobriety goodbye almost immediately. Last year, I barely ate, though I remember drinking a lot and laughing even more.

Well, we did it again.

Jonathan and Marzia of the VSP Workshops and I threw caution to the winds and wandered in there. About the same time, a lanky redhead walked in with short shorts, legs long enough to get an NBA tryout and killer stilettos. Marino immediately began telling her his legs were better than hers’. Naturally, photographically speaking, I joined the debate.

Of course, Marino insisted on further comparisons.

Photographically speaking, I figure my legs are about plus 3 EV. (Photo by Jonathan Maher) Recalled a time, many, many moons ago, when a bunch of us were in Las Vegas for the Larry Holmes-Jerry Cooney heavyweight bout. What you did back then was shoot film tests, soup it at the local lab, and eyeball the results before the fight. We were all hanging around poolside when the test Ektachrome arrived, and various shooters pulled out their loupes and wanted to use my back for a light table. Ouch!

The observers of all this silliness were of course the regulars. I believe I remember these faces from last year. In fact I’m not sure any of them have ever left the bar.

Next morning, up at dawn and in the Piazza San Marco, where we photographed a decidedly more beautiful pair of legs, those belonging to the lovely ballerina, Francesca.

Many thanks as always to Jonathan and Marzia of the VSP workshops, who create a wonderful environment for a workshop. Also, a huge thank you to Marco Tortato, who represents the photographic division of Vitec here in Italy. He helped us with everything from Gitzo tripods to Manfrotto grip equipment to Lastolite diffusers and Skylite panels. Our class was stylin’ to be sure, thanks to him and his generous support.

In Madrid airport now, pre-dawn. (What else?) On the way to Dubai to teach at the Gulf Photo Plus. An amazing workshop with a great group of instructors. (I think everybody in the Strobist community should chip in a buck or two and charter a 747 to Dubai for David Hobby’s classes. In between my schedule, I’ll be slipping into the back of his lectures, Chase Jarvis‘, Bobbi Lane, Ben Willmore….you name it, the list goes on.)

Speaking of Chase, I owe him several beers and a steak the size of Texas. He graciously took over my first class as I am running late to Dubai. After leaving Venice, I have been off the internet and kind of out there a bit in a mysterious land surrounded by a yellow border:-) Many Thanks, Chase!

More tk……

Ahhh Venice…..

Apr 22

In Seminars & Workshops at 6:36pm

In Venice currently, teaching at the VSP Workshops, run by Jonathan Maher and his lovely wife Marzia. (Jonathan’s one of those guys, you know, in the club. Married waaayyyy out of his league and wanders around dumbstruck that somebody as nice as Marzia actually said yes.)

Jonathan’s a good guy, and he and Marzia team up to run a wonderful set of workshops staged quite literally around the world. I’ve been blessed to teach two of them here in Venice, and when asked to teach in this most beautiful of cities, I really don’t even bother asking them where their other workshops are, even though they are in some nice places. I just come here and teach. I mean, why go anywhere else?

We go to palaces and villas and theaters and piazzas, and drag along some grip equipment, a stash of Nikon SB 800 strobes, and light up some beautiful places and people. Julia, above, makes a great veiled lady of the castle. She is also a ballerina who will brave the 6 am pre-dawn chill of Venice and come with us to Piazza San Marco on Thursday dressed in a tutu. She is truly a lovely person, and has worked well with both the classes I have taught here.

The above was shot as a class demo with two SB800 strobes firing through a shoot thru umbrella. Key to the deal was the outer skin of the shoot thru was peeled back halfway which is a good trick to use when trying to get the flash to concentrate a bit and gradate down the body. I use Lastolite umbrellas, with an outer black/silver skin covering the standard white umbrella diffusion. You can peel the outer layer back by half, and thus block low spillage of light. Concentrates nice, soft light on the face, right where you want it. Jiggled the hand held camera a bit just to get the edge of movement, which was a cinch cause I had downed about 5 double espressos by that point. The shutter was dragging pretty good for the ambient backlight, but she stays sharp cause the strobe dominates the foreground.

It’s great here. The waterways churn like crazy, gondoliers passing constantly, and I hear accordion music and the occasional “Arrivederci Roma” from my hotel room just over a canal. (Actually wish it was occasional. It’s more like, often, which, depending on who’s singing, can easily verge on too much. From there it’s a beeline to “Jeez, can’t you just shut up and row?”)

Yesterday I saw a guy driving a cargo boat through a busy swatch of water, standing on the boat, arms folded over his chest, sort of swaying back and forth. The boat was turning here and there, and I was wondering how that was happening when he passed us by and I looked back and saw that the tiller was firmly jammed in his butt crack, and he was making course corrections by doing his version of an easygoing maritime rumba. I hadn’t noticed if he was smiling broadly while doing this, but hey, it’s cool. You gotta love your work.

Hard to call shooting pictures in Venice work, but it sure is easy to love.

Hold the Phone…

Apr 15

In Lighting, On Location, Thoughts at 7:42pm

Or, maybe just hold the light. Or a bunch of lights. Posted last week and alleged using 53 speedlights of various types on the above. It’s a number that stuck in my head. I kept thinking on it and in the interests of veracity and accuracy and all that stashed up guilt from being raised Irish Catholic, I did some research on it and the official number came back as 47. My bad. The source here is Bill Pekala, the General Manager of NPS over at Nikon. He worked with me on it, as he has many projects in the 20 plus years we have known each other. Great guy, and a mind like a bear trap for all things photographic. A photog’s friend, in a word, who leavens his photo discourse with various down home Tennessee-isms that are part country wisdom and part Nikon manual.

Dunno why 53 stuck with me. It might have come from chewing the fat with Bill, over a couple of beers, and doing the old, “Remember when we lit up that KC-135 with like 50 or so flashes….” type of thing. I’m sure some day in the home, on the porch, in my wheelychair, it’ll be up to 103, and somehow the entire mission would have mysteriously acquired an element of danger. “Remember all those flashes? They ran on steam, remember?! Damn dangerous! Had to wear a bomb suit just to handle ’em!” This conversation would of course be attended to by the rolled eyes of those who can hear me say anything, the odd cackle or two, and the more than occasional fart.

Light doesn’t have to be hard, or a lot. True, every once in a while you get confronted with something, you know, like Everest, and you just climb it cause it’s there. It ain’t fun, I tell ya. One of the first stories I ever did for the National Geographic was about the then soon to be re-opened Ellis Island. The first part of the coverage was a blast. Just me, Kodachrome 25 and rising morning light. I would get onto the island in total darkness, roughly 4 am (it was Nov-Dec) and start walking the halls of the deserted section of the island.

It was kind of creepy. Lots of folks died out there. They have the remnants of the medical area and the old crematorium. I’d have my tripod and just to keep myself company, I would push open a door with it and stir up a flurry of pidgeons. Then I would call out, “Freddy? Jason? You in there?”

Too many movies.

It was a revelation. No PR people hovering (they flutter just like pidgeons, by the way, so I felt right at home). No plug ugly subjects, no light hearted bullshit banter at the camera, no real timetable except the sun striking an object.

Came up with some of my favorite photos. No people, just rust and ghosts.

Of course I wasn’t stupid enough to think that Geographic gave me this wondrous job to wander around abandoned hallways in rising light. Lots of folks better than I am at that. No, no. The job had a wrinkle, as they often do. At one point in the coverage, I was gonna have to light Ellis Island.

Not the whole damn thing, just the museum portion, which is a biggggggg building. At the time it was a construction site with very limited electric power. Had to drag my own genny truck out there. Quick $1000 under the table to the union rep (I love NY!) and voila, I got my own power on the island.

Next, the lights. Woe to a shooter trying to rent strobes that week in NY. The shot below is done with about 50-60 power packs (2400ws, some 48’s) plugged into roughly 100-120 flash heads. We spent 4 days or so wiring and testing and shooting this rig. Killer sked. Shoot sunrise, run the film to the lab. See all the mistakes, run back to the island. Make adjustments. Shoot sunset. Run the film to the lab. See the mistakes. Back to the island. Make adjustments. Sleep in the car for a couple hours. Shoot sunrise. Go on another mistake finding lab run. This went on for 4 days.

Crew of 4, I believe, and they were all ready to tie some Speedotrons around my neck and dump me in the harbor. “Where’s Joe?” Splash. “Dunno. Haven’t seen him.” (One member of the crew came by the studio personally to pick up his check and assure me that lighting Ellis Island had been the worst experience of his life.)

Triggered the system from 3 vantage points on the ground, and tried some stuff from the air, with line of sight flash triggering. (Clamped Hensel Porty heads to the open door of the chopper and flew that baby in close to rooftops where we had slave eyes on light stands. (Sounds antediluvian but it was, you know, like 1989 or so.)

We got a pic, and the flash pop was easily viewable from Brooklyn or New Jersey. Got on the WINS traffic report on the last day cause the reporter and his chopper pilot were drawn to the explosion of light in the harbor. Never forget his opening line for the traffic report: “And there’s lightning over Ellis Island this morning as National Geographic lights up the island for a story!”

My day rate at the time was $250 per day, which made me far cheaper to rent than the strobe system. But it was there, you know? I had to climb it. More tk.

Nigel and Me….

Apr 11

In Advice, Lighting, Thoughts at 7:19am

When Nigel gets hungry, he won’t let me work. He’ll just come up to my laptop and rumble and purr and generally get all sorts of adorable. If that doesn’t work he just starts walking back and forth in front of my computer screen, stepping on random keys. Last week he sent an email to 7 people at the National Geographic. Had to finish that one quick and follow up, lest the venerable editors there thought I had resorted to incomplete sentences with no sign off.


I am using the pop up on the D300 in commander mode.
Leaving the USA on Sunday.
I have (3) SB 800’s, D300 and I am lost….
What I know.
1. Can set them up to all fire wireless using the pop up flash on the D300
What I don’t know or what is the step by step (SB 800 for dummies) how to set up one to use as fill, add power to one less power to one,etc…
I see in the D300 to do this, ok. But to navigate thru the SB800 back and the manual. I just don’t get it……..I write this after 10 t o 12 hours and $20 in batteries. I read the strobist,etc,,,,,,,.
Do anyone know of a blog, book, web site that can give a picture and tell or plain simple (remember SB 800 for dummies) to help me??
A quick response is most welcomed.
Simple in Kentucky

Okay….here we go, as best help as I can be. First off, on the SB 800, if you ever get totally lost, simultaneously depress the mode, and the on/off button and keep ’em depressed for like 3 seconds. The unit factory defaults back to a straight up TTL setting. Can’t tell you how many times that has saved my butt.

The key to the SB800 programming is the SEL dial in the middle of the back of the unit. Depress that for 3 seconds and you’ll get a 4 box grid. (Don’t do this with gloves on. You’ll just mash away and the unit will do nothing. Get your digit square onto that puppy and push.) Toggle right to the upper right box with squiggle lines and flash symbols. Very artful.

Tap SEL again for a split second and the up/down cursor arrow goes live. You can go through options here, and the ones you are concerned with are MASTER and REMOTE, presumably the latter cause you have the pop up in the D300. Toggle down and highlight REMOTE. Depress SEL again for 3 seconds and the REMOTE info panel comes up in the lcd. It says REMOTE in capital letters. You know when you are there. Upper left is channels–double check this against your setting in the pop up. You gotta be on the same channel. Hit SEL again and you highlight the groups box in lower right. A-B-C. You got three flashes, so choice of group is up to you and where you position them. (Note!!!! Just got this straight from Pete Wilkinson below–no C group with the D300!)

Now check your pop up menu. Go to custom option for built in flash…comes up usually as active in the TTL mode. Toggle down to Commander mode. Toggle right. Commander mode comes up, and the pop up is active as a flash, which I will presume you don’t want. (Why would you go to all this trouble and still have the damn pop up active, which is the size of a dime and gives out just as cheap a quality of light? Dunno, except as maybe you put it to minus 3 EV and use is as a wink light fill type deal.)

I digress. Highlight the little box that says TTL. Then toggle downwards ( I believe it is downwards, I don’t own a D300.) You will run through the options, including auto mode, and manual, and then you get to a flat cursor. Ta Da! The pop up is now off as a flash. Will still act as a commander, and still flash. But the flash is a monitor pre-flash, an informational burst of light that occurs milliseconds before the real exposure. Don’t sweat it. It is not gonna register in your real exposure.

Then just zip through with the toggles to A , B or C groups, making sure they are reading TTL. The box to the right is the plus/minus EV area, with you can dial in to your desire. That will drive the power rating of the SB800 remote strobe you just programmed. YOU DON’T HAVE TO PROGRAM A VALUE INTO THE 800 UNIT ITSELF. IT GETS IT’S COMMANDS FROM THE POP UP PROGRAMMING YOU HAVE JUST SET UP! You don’t have to do anything else to the SB800 except make sure the receptor dish is unobstructed. that is the little recessed circular area about the size of an M&M right near the battery chamber. If you use the 5th battery add on chamber, be aware you are cutting the angle of reception this sensor has access to, and therefore may occasionally have trouble tripping it. If I am ever feeling like the remote is in a tough spot to receive the master signal from the pop up, I take the 5th battery chamber off so the sensor’s field of view is clearer.

Make sure when you program the pop up commander menu, you hit OK on the back of the camera. If you don’t, when you close out the menu option, all the settings you just programmed will disappear. Sucks. So remember to hit OK.

OK? Helpful on any level?

As far as arraying the units, and then dialing them in for power settings, I can’t say cause I ain’t there with you. I can say it is a game of ratios, or levels, and it all works depending on your eye. There is no right or wrong answer. Just a couple things to remember. Light has a logic. If the unit looks like it is too far to the side, your subject will be side lit. Try not to open up everything with light. Leave room for shadows. Try to reflect the units off of or through something. Remember, these are small flashes, and the game is to get them to behave like big flashes.


The Nikkor 200 f2 is maybe the sharpest telephoto I have ever used. That’s basically it. And, at f2, the DOF drop off is occasionally really pleasing for portraiture.

Kino Flow Lights….Drug a pair of them out to location the other day. Wanted to see what all the fuss was about, as they are very popular lights indeed right about now. Had a good time, but nothing magical happened. You can see the light, and the quality, to be sure, and that is handy. Kind of missed the pop of a strobe, and the little bird chirp of the recycle though. Small things keep me happy, I guess. Used one 4 tube kino flow on Rick here. Didn’t use both of them cause one didn’t work. Welcome to location shooting. My subject was Rick, who has just an amazing face, and an amazing history.