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Archive for the ‘Tips & Tricks’ Category

Just When We Figured out the 800….

Jul 1

In Lighting, Tips & Tricks at 10:30am

Along comes the 900. I’ve had two for a few weeks now, and the unit is, well, smooth. What can I say? Ed Fasano, a General Manager at Nikon, asked me what I thought after handling it, and I told him, “Well, if the SB800 is a real nice Chevy, this baby’s a Cadillac.”

It’s bigger, stronger, sturdier. It has crucial additional features that will go a long ways to making CLS a more complete system. It has a guide number that is the equivalent to the power of a thousand suns! It will retail for $33.95 after mail in rebate! I’m lying!

Smooth light. The unit has three light distribution patterns, standard, center weighted and even. So, for the first time we can really address the quality of the light we are getting at the source, in addition to the zoom control. Have I done the old flash against the wall test to check for the distribution pattern? No. That would be waaayyyyyy too thorough for me. I kind of took it and thought I would see how it interacts with the human face in the way I often approach portraiture.

I prevailed upon my daughter Claire to take a break from the non-stop pool lounging she is currently engaged in since school let out and come out for some pictures with her best friend, Amanda. I suggested they do something to illustrate the closeness they feel as friends. Overhead is two SB900 units, bounced into umbrellas (Lastolite All in Ones) and then running through a Lastolite 3×6 Skylite Panel. The panel is diffusing light and blocking sun, as we shot this in my driveway, with some black paper hanging from the overhead door.

But I like the light. It wraps, and it is, again, smooth. It’s tough to articulate about light in a reasonable way. I use terms like smooth, rounded, harsh, angry, voluptuous, poppy, dreamy, soft, rich, evil…sounds at the end like I’ve described your average afternoon on All My Children.

But then I decided to not give the unit a break with lots of softness and went to a simple, reflected umbrella, which is not generally my light of choice. Just keep it basic and see what it can do. Amanda here is holding up the wall.

Same deal here. Umbrella camera left, up high, middling distance from Claire.

Simple is the way I might describe this. Easy, even. Running aperture priority at minus 2EV to keep the wall a bit dense and below middle gray. Claire is lit with the 900 in group A, the only light in the mix. Put a little extra power in the strobe to compensate for the muted nature of the frame.


You know the selector button in the back of the SB800. They key to the kingdom? The button that allows all? The one that was reluctant to respond when punching it in a frenzy? The one when crunch time is happening on the job and your lights are completely set but you gotta make a change and you are pushing and pushing on the button so hard you feel like you’re that kid in Gary Larsen’s cartoon about Midvale School for the Gifted? Cause nothing’s happening? Or, you happen to have a thumb the size of a ham hock, and you can mash that baby all day long and it’s giving you flat line, no response? That one?

Ugh! Mongo make flash work now.

Well, say goodbye to that puppy. See the wheel above, in the middle. Key in virtually any function with a tap on the appropriate button and spin that wheel. Plus/minus EV, groups, channels, the whole deal. Once you get yourself set, see the lock symbol? Yep, you can lock it so you don’t thunder thumb it to group 9 or something I am often prone to do. See the temp scale? Cool! Burst away! The unit will tell you when it’s heating up. It gets to the top of that thermometer, a klaxon horn sounds and a pre-recorded voice screams “Emergency Blow!” Kidding of course.

See the on/off/remote/master switch? Thank you, strobe wizards! Do you realize if you multiply how many times you use this unit over the course of your life by the number of seconds it would have taken you to punch through the SB800 4 box grid and get to the options menu and drop the 800 into either master, remote or SU-4 (let’s say, 15 seconds) that you will be given back probably enough time to watch all of the Rambo movies and seriously ponder the nuances of characterization and subtleties of the human condition that define those movies? And how much richer your life will be because of that? All due to the simple on/off/remote/master switch. No more punching through the menu. Go click, you’re there.

The unit zooms to 200. Which means it can throw light from a good distance.

The light here is TTL, zoomed to 200mm, blasting at Claire from maybe 40′ or so. Not artful, especially for Claire, but good indication of things to come, and things that might now be possible. I’m speculating I can maybe make a 900 a master, and zoom it and get more reach for the signal to my remotes. Just a hunch, and as I get cranking better with these guys, I’ll report back. Check out the shoes. I always joke with Claire that her first word was, “Chanel.” She is a fashion plate, along with her friends

Tried another simple umbrella approach on this, and thank goodness for TTL, cause I’m shooting one handed and holding the stand on a rocky incline with my shoulder and other hand. Managed to get it pretty close, and it is wavering around up there, but the exposure stuck with me, and I came up with teenage girls and their sneakers. I always remember a Time cover story on Diane Keaton, shot by Douglas Kirkland I believe, many years ago, where Diane is on the rocks of Central Park with goofy shoes and a wide lens. Nice frame, as I recall. I’m always harking back to work, footnotes in the random stock files of my brain.

And….TA DA! The unit swivels 180 each way for a total of 360! Yep! It is the Linda Blair of strobe units. Swing that light head. It comes to a click stop of course, and then you go back the other direction. But it is a full 360 which means we just got away from the angling the unit to maximize sensor reception but at the same time potentially compromising the approach of the light to the subject. This feature alone is worth the price of admission, to me. I was showed this out at Nikon and I almost kissed Lindsay Silverman on the lips.

And…drum roll…final note of the morning. It’s got a computerized gel system. Huh? Yeah, that’s kind of what I said. But here’s the deal. You put the camera in Auto WB (gotta be there) and then slip one of the gels that comes with the units into a holder. The gel has computer chips embedded in it, and the holder makes contact with the unit and translates a color temp back to the camera. In other words, put a full CTO on the strobe, and the camera internally adjusts to an incandescent white balance.

The below is a little light flash on camera through a Lumiquest Big Bounce. Bit of CTO on the strobe, daylight balance for the scene. Color pattern about what you would expect.

But, put the full cto on that comes with the flash, and it signals the white balance shift. And you get this.

Bears exploration, to be sure. Pretty nifty technology. Feel very blessed to have experimented with this stuff. Mike Corrado at Nikon told me I was the first shooter to have my hands on it. Dunno on that, but if true, it means I am the first shooter to have broken one of them. Mike, sorry! One of them pitched off a stand and came up scott free, not a mark on it, except the dome diffuser cracked a bit. My bad. Not looking.

Tomorrow, pictures you get when you mix a ladder truck of FDNY, a D700, Times Square, Mike Corrado, and 3 onboard SB800 units. More tk.

And..just in. Jeff Snyder, the magician of Adorama–his email is jsnyder@adorama.com and he is taking orders per a note I got from him this am. I don’t know if you know Jeff, but he is a wiz at navigating the system in the early release of a product. Food for thought….also Nikon has a link on their press room site, obviously…


Mar 20

In Seminars & Workshops, Tips & Tricks at 8:24am


One of the reasons I teach is that I learn constantly. I learn from my class participants, who are routinely terrific. I learn from the whole workshop environment, especially one such as here in Santa Fe. Reid Callanan and Renie Haiduk have created a wonderful oasis of photographic enthusiasm and energy out here, and just bouncing off of it for periods of time puts juice back in my own work.

And I completely enjoy, and learn from a group of folks who are routinely taken for granted–the workshop models. These folks come out, for very little money, and help out the classes by posing for them.

I have known Donald now for about 5 years. He consistently gets assigned to my classes, and we are always the better for it. We talk a bit, and he is a font of wisdom, wry humor, and he has that wise “seen it before” twinkle in his eye. He also at this point knows a hell of a lot about lighting. I once saw him eyeball a light a participant was putting up, and quietly say, “I think you’re going to want that light lower.” He was right, and the photog in question made a nice picture.

Donald got sick a while back, and we were all concerned, but typical of him, he just beat it back, and kept coming to pose for the Workshops. I asked back then how he was doing and he replied, “Joe, the day they lay me down, all the music in the world’s gonna stop.” I believe he’s right.

I have always told Donald I would make a picture of him–just take a couple minutes away from the class and do his portrait. Never got the chance until this week. It was an honor to have in front of my lens.

Some folks have asked for lighting grids and sketches about the last couple of pix I posted. Those are coming…just gotta go to Dunkin Donuts and get the napkins to sketch on:-)

Sometimes You Get the Shaft

Mar 17

In Lighting, On Location, Tips & Tricks at 7:15am

Nothing like a shaft of light for drama. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in places and wished I had a 12K movie light, a scissor lift and a big ass smoke machine. Shaft city! Just like in the movies!

But sometimes, it happens for you. Saw this light coming through the busted ceiling of the officer’s quarters on Corregidor, and I thought, you know, cool! Of course the ballerina available at the time was wearing dead white, so it meant I was going into close orbit around Ice Planet 255, but, I’m always up for an adventure. So she gets in there and does something appropriate, elegant and graceful. She is as soft and lovely as the light is harsh and slashing.


But where is she? One of the things you realize over time is that a successful photograph and a successful restaurant often have something in common. Location, location, location. Now I could have left well enough alone here, but hey, it’s me, remember? Never met a subject I couldn’t overlight, so we drug out a couple of SB800 strobes and simply laid them down on the ground, camera left and camera right, about 5′ in front of the lens. Didn’t put ‘em on sticks, cause the main source of light in the pic is the way overhead and it doesn’t really bounce off anything until it hits the ground. It’s not even spilling very much onto the wall, hence the wall color, which is pretty terrific, is gone. So if there is any bounce in the frame, anything that might logically reflect light, it’s the rubble strewn floor. So the units go on the floor.

In terms of color and detail, our eyes can see it. And can see her, and even the folds of the dress. That’s cause the eye is an amazing instrument, making nanosecond adjustments we’re not even aware of. The camera, as sophisticated as it is, is a 5 stop instrument. It makes the very smart decision to expose for the highlights, and kisses the shadows goodbye. Bye bye wall. Bye bye color. Bye bye context.

But you can make inputs to the frame and dial in some light from the SB units right from camera. Messed with them a bit, and came up with this. In other words, with these small flashes, you can bend even strong light in your favor, just a little.


Had a class running, so only shot about 4 or 5 frames of this, and each one I was dialing in some different EV values. I believe these two units were running somewhere around plus 1 EV. The effect on the wall is pretty soft, and could have made it softer yet by, say, running the units through umbrellas and laying them down on the floor. But umbrellas weren’t immediately available, so we moved fast and hoped the uneven junk on the floor would break the light up a little. Still pretty hard, though. Look at the shadow of her trailing leg. That definitive shadow gets softer as you go higher in the frame towards her arm, and the strobe mixes with a greater and greater percentage of available light. It’s fun to mess with this stuff, I tell ya. You throw everything into the hopper; your gut, your sense of time and place, your histograms, the light, the color, the subject, and voila! You have ze magnificent and tasty stew! Or, sometimes, you get something you wouldn’t feed your cat. What was I saying earlier about pictures and restaurants?

I like dance, what can I say? I’ve said many times that dancers and photographers have a lot in common in that we are hard working, creative, and underpaid. Recently, on a trip to Milan, the venerable La Scala School of Ballet graciously allowed me to shoot their workouts and practices. What a wonderful place!

ballet school

Not only did I witness great dancers in training, the opportunity gave me a chance to practice more with the AF modes on my D3. More on that tk.

And finally…..HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Good old St. Pat’s. First time I ever came home truly hammered. I was 17, and my high school senior class always marched in the parade. (We were taught by the Irish Christian Brothers, go figure.)

After the parade dispersed, all of us disappeared into bars that weren’t checking for ID, and proceeded to get stupid. I was lucky I found Grand Central Station and the train home. Only took like, 2 beers. Complete lightweight.

Now, the day is spent more quietly. I start my class today here in Santa Fe. (Don’t think they have a parade here, but that’s just a wild guess on my part.) It’ll be a great week, as they always are here at the workshops.

My friend Mark Krajnak, the K-Man, the man in the fedora, he of the Flickr site and the New Jersey Noir style of shooting, sent me a pictorial note of how he might spend St. Pat’s. Seems he got comfortable with an Irish writer and a bottle of Jameson’s:-)


“Clicks” Cover Shot Explained & Vertical Grip

Mar 11

In Lighting, On Location, Tips & Tricks, Videos at 1:56pm

A reader wrote in and said they enjoyed the book, but was disappointed I didn’t discuss how I did the cover. So here goes.

Cover Image new cover sketch

The model is holding the jagged mirror in her left hand, and the camera is basically perched on her right shoulder. Shot with a D2Xs, with a 17-55, my favorite DX format lens. The camera sees the sky, and her reflection (tweaked the mirror just about where I wanted it). Then, off to camera right, is an SB-R200, the baby close-up brother to the SB800. It is about 2′ from the model’s face, just off the field of view, and controlled wirelessly from the SU 800 on the camera. As I recall, the sky is pulled down about a stop via minus one EV, and the flash is pumped up just a touch to compensate.

Da Grip….update….Couple of folks wrote about vertical grip on the camera. Here’s the thing. The grip I’m talking about really is mostly applicable to left eyed shooters of motor driven cameras. But that doesn’t mean elements of it–the boxer’s stance, the elbows tucked, center of gravity positioned properly, exhaling, etc. can’t be stripped out of this and applied on a selective basis. Some folks asked about shooting verticals. Without a vertical release, holding and firing the camera in the vertical position is plain and simple just tougher than holding it horizontally. (I have asked art directors for more money to shoot a vertical picture as opposed to a horizontal one, just on the basis that it is harder to turn the camera vertically. Haven’t gotten it yet. I’m only kidding, but if someone offered me the dough I would take it!)

Also, for those interested, here’s the video version of Da Grip and an outtake featuring Nigel, my wife Annie’s cat, who joined us on the set for a bit.



Da Grip

Mar 10

In Rants, Tips & Tricks at 4:13pm

Some folks have written to me about hand holding cameras. I talk about it a bit at workshops and the like. (There’s a page in Clicks about it.) Seems pretty straightforward, I know, but as has been noted before, I have a tremendous capacity to state, explain and generally belabor the obvious, so at the risk of talking about yesterday’s news and telling people that which they already know, here goes.

[By the way, I’m flying right now, back from Spain, and eating on top of my laptop. When I’m working I just close the computer and put the food tray on top of it. Is that weird? I don’t know. Might be risky, I guess, but I do it often. I think I’ll be alright. The tortellini I’m scarfing is encrusted in it’s plastic dish like a bunch of barnacles below the water line of a Greek fishing vessel, and I’m having a hard time prying them outta there with my little plastic fork, so definitely no danger of spillage with these.

Could be trouble with the coffee and the water, I guess, but I’m pretty careful. I don’t think I’ll have an accident, but, just like driving in the snow, ya gotta watch out for the other guy. My neighbor seems nice enough, and not prone to sudden movements, unlike the guy who is sitting in the seat connected to my tray table who’s been trying to get comfortable for about a half an hour now, and the seat’s yakking back and forth like he’s boffing his girlfriend…]

Okay, back to the grip… First, what not to do:

Grip - Bad Posture

Bad posture, Mr. McNally, as the Sisters of the Precious Blood used to tell me (my blood, not their’s). This type of deal is a one way ticket to the spine doc, and field fatigue. Field fatigue is something we don’t talk about much, but man, it’s there. The more tired you get, the worse your pictures are. The more compact your movements, the more comfortable you are, and the more you support the camera with your body and not just your arms, the more spry you’ll feel, even at the end of the day.

[…But my seat mate’s cool. She’s a slender female, which is great cause I’m hoggin’ the armrest like crazy. Last flight I was next to some guy who literally spilled into my seat and smelled like low tide. Couldn’t even find the frikkin’ arm rest, let alone compete for it.

Armrest comp is great. You get a couple of guys tight together for a few hours, and let the games begin! (This really occurs between guys. Most women tend not get involved in this kind of petty, machismo hoo hah.) I can always tell the ones who’ll be tough. They’re suits, mostly, and they work on PC’s and they immediately pop up a screen with, like, third quarter results, just a spreadsheet stuffed with numbers and bar graphs, and they study it real intently, like they’re a windtalker and trying to crack some kind of code…]

(Warning, warning! This camera grip is much more convenient and doable if you are left eyed and use a motor driven camera, which is obviously deeper, say, than a D70. So we’re talking a D300 with a grip, or a D3, that type of body. Also, the left eye thing. I just have always used my left eye. Dunno why.)

[…Speaking of wind, I shouldn’t complain about anybody sitting next to me, cause I’m tooting like crazy during this flight. Must be the pressure change or something. Or that double beef bean burrito I ate in Madrid before embarking.

In Flight Update
Oh well, I digress. Brad’s gonna read this blog and make sure he gets his seat on the other side of the aircraft from now on…]

Focusing left eyed brings your motor driven camera closer to your left shoulder. (Really Joe, no shit?!) That’s a good deal. If you swing your body around into something resembling a boxing stance, your left shoulder becomes a base, or a platform for the camera body. It also brings your center of gravity back under the camera. Also a good move.

Grip - Left Eye

An overhand grip might be cool if you throw a baseball for a living, but not if you shoot pictures to conjure bread on the table. That overhand grip! See it all the time. Bad news. The overhand pulls your elbow out, away from your body, like a bat wing, and meanwhile you have that ham hock of a hand laying atop the lens like a couple of pounds of ground chuck. Useless weight on the drag strip.

Grip - Overhand Bad

[Flight update….currently there is a baby screaming and a dog barking (no joke), each within five seats of mine. I noticed this lady who got onboard with a little barking rat inside of one of those mesh bags, and sure enough, he’s a yipper…]

Put the left mitt under the lens, or, if truly skinny on shutter speed whilst using a short lens, clap that puppy over your right hand gripping the camera.

Grip - Left Hand Under

Grip - Left Grip 1

Grip - Left Grip 2

[Flight update….they’re coming by with the duty free cart. All the vices, tax free. Liquor, cigarettes…surprised they’re not running a special on methamphetamine. I was thinking to myself, “Who buys this stuff?” and I got my answer. Guy four rows up just bought what looked to be an incredibly expensive woman’s watch. I know desperation when I see it. Must’ve forgotten to get something for the gf while land based and this is his last chance for something appropriately chic and European. Whew! Dodged a bullet there. If he showed up empty handed he probably wouldn’t get lucky till late fall.]