Wednesday, April 29, 2009

And now for something completely different...

This post has nothing to do with photography, except that I took photos.

As part of the school's production of Into the Woods, the giant's hen is supposed to make an entrance, and lay a golden egg. The director asked if radio control was an option. Oh yes!

Matt built the framework, and handled the electronics. We had enough radio control gear in the workshop to handle the task. We gave the hen a test run on stage to see how it worked. Not bad! ( With Matt back at VT, I took on carving the head, making the fiberglass shell, and mating up the chassis with the hen's body. A very talented student at the school took care of the paint job.

The hen worked perfectly for every show. Each time it made an entrance the audience laughed. They laughed again when it "ran away" for its exit. Perfect.

Brother, Can You Spare a Light?

Shooting in low light situations has always frustrated me. I like to focus on capturing the moment, and not have to worry about the light. Ironic, since photography is all about capturing light. I recently read an excellent book on lighting ("Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting") and have started to get past my frustration.

For many years I have photographed theatrical performances at my kids' high school. I still do, although my kids are now in college. Well, to be clear, I also build a lot of the sets, help out with lighting and special effects, and maintain the stage workshop. This past week the school ran 5 performances of the musical "Into the Woods". I am part of a small crew that spent the last three months building sets for it, so it was a big weekend for us. I took photos at the dress rehearsal and all five performances. Despite all of the lighting equipment (including some wicked awesome wireless DMX dimmers) there is precious little light for photography in these shows. Using my new book learnin', I took a considered approach to photographing this production.

First, I stopped fooling myself into thinking I could get away from ISO 1600. I hate the noise that comes with it, but I hate blurry and underexposed photos even more. So I got myself a noise reducing filter for Photoshop and cranked up the ISO.

Then, I set my aperture as wide open as I could. For my 28-70mm lens, that's f2.8, while my 70-200mm lens is F4 (both are constant throughout the focal range). I like shooting that way anyway - I dig shallow depth of field.

For shutter speed, I respect the old school rule of setting your shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of the focal length. So at a focal length of 100mm, I had to have my shutter at least at 1/100th. But, not really. I have a pretty steady hand, and a monopod. So I cheated down a bit and shot most at 1/60th. That got me pretty close to proper exposure - at least close enough that a stop or so of adjustment in Photoshop got me right.

I was very careful to time my shots well. In photographing musicals, it's very easy to get people with their jaws gaping open, or with a funny fish face. Singing is not a photogenic activity. I also chose based on movement. Knowing that I was shooting at 1/60th, any movement on stage would blur. So I was patient, positioned myself well, and took well considered shots.

I shot everyting in RAW, as is my practice. That gives me the opportunity to corret exposure and white balance - both critical in photographing musicals. The trick is to adjust the color so it looks right, but doesn't undo all of the artistic work done by the lighting designer.

Afterwards, I went through my newly developed work flow to rate, process, and touch up the images. My noise filter worked its magic, and reduced noise to a level that I can deal with. The camera did a nice job with auto white balance, so a little work there along with cropping and I ended up with a nice set of photos.

The lesson learned (or maybe reinforced is better) is that you can't cheat the light. It is what it is, and you have to adjust your camera for it, or suffer from weak images. The images of Into the Woods are the best I have ever taken of a musical. So I'm going to stick with this approach in low light conditions.

A sampling of shots from the production are on my web site at under the "Plays" link. You can also compare them to some shots I took of the school's production of Damn Yankees some time ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Big Milestone

The wedding yesterday went well, about as well as I hoped it would and way better than I feared it might. It was a fairly small affair, with around 100 people attending. With this being my first wedding shoot, I have countless lines of thought in reflection, but most are not blog-worthy. They're simply learnings. But there were still some things to blog about.

Preparation: We were over prepared for sure. But with this being the first time, we didn't know when we had prepped enough. So we just kept at it. In the end, we had everything we needed, had made all the right people connections, and knew everything we needed to know. We had invested some time in worksheets (i.e. shot lists) that were useful, but we had gone overboard and didn't need a lot of what we did. It's not engineering, you just have to roll with it sometimes.

Planning: We planned a LOT. We each knew exactly what we needed to do, and when to do it. We had done mental dry-runs, and had hours of coordinating discussions beforehand to understand how it all worked together. Of course, the plans didn't go quite as planned, but we had planned for that. A good example: the bride had asked for a large number of family photographs to be taken at the church in the hour immediately before the ceremony. We made it through the bride's family in the first half of the hour (right on schedule), but (as we had counseled) the wedding-day coordinator and the bride and the bride's attendants/sisters all realized that with people filing into the church, we needed to put family photos on hold. We figured this would happen, and had already scoped out a place at the reception location as an alternate photo location. Two very important factors here: we invested time on a comprehensive plan, and we were flexible enough to roll when rolling was needed.

People: At 100 attending, it wasn't a huge crush of people. The bride and groom were experienced in life (not much younger than I), which led to a more mature demographic trend in the attendees. During the wedding, they were very well behaved, bordering on sedate. Not much changed at the reception! Fortunately, the bride's sisters knew how to have fun, and did so. The bride's mom, widowed just a few weeks ago, was also full of personality. Amazing. Although she is very experienced at life, she was on the dance floor often. Few men danced at all; the dance floor was almost exclusively women, and always featured the bride's sisters. A few young kids played at the cheesy colored light balls and foggers the DJ was sporting, and chased the bubbles from the bubble machines. Yeah, that DJ brought the house down! I mean mean down. Down to silence, twice. Yes, this poor DJ, a meek gradmotherly type, had her gear shut down on her twice. Silence for 5 minutes each time. Now that's a serous reception buzz-kill. Not much to photograph then, except the long line at the bar.

Equipment: We had everything we needed and with one exception, it all wored great. One of the two strobes we had on the corners of the dance floor blew a fuse three times. The third time we just left it alone and carried on without. When you buy "Cowboy" brand lighting equipment, you can expect some issues. I see Alien Bees coming our way after a few more bookings. The investment in flash brackets, radio triggers, and external flash batteries proved to be worth the pain. I'm glad we spent to money. We got many positive comments on our use of tethering during the post-ceremony shots. To make sure each shot was good, I connected my camera to my Mac laptop, and viewed each shot while I took it through the tethering utility. The wedding coordinator (and brides BFF) and a few sisters watched the screen with me and we all decided when we liked the shot. Some vets of the biz may be agast, but we found this to be a big plus. A few times we saw small flaws and reshot, someting I would have missed if it was just me looking at the camera's screen. The groom metioned later in the day that he was very impressed with how we were doing QA on the photos as we took them to make sure they were good. We'll make this a standard practice. It's easy, works great, and (based on my statistical sample of one) the clients love it.

Operations: I rented a backup camera, a 40D just like mine, with a nice 24-105mm f4L IS lens. I gave it to Matt, my assistant/son, to use so long as my gear worked. So we had three photographers most of the time. Overkill for a wedding of this size, but handy at times. Kevin (#2) and I (#1) worked the front of the church during the service. For the procession, Kevin shot from the back/staging area and I took the aisle shots. Matt (#3) roamed around taking random shots until the bride was ready to enter. Then e went to the balcony and shot from there as she walked down the aisle. After the ceremony, Matt handled ligting adjustments, Kevin arranged the groups of people, and I shot. Perfect. At the reception, we found that we were getting in each others shots a lot. Really, one photographer could have covered that reception. But we had three, so we just managed.

The programmed part of the reception was over pretty quickly, so it was essentially people sitting and talking, people standing and drinking, or people dancing for the rest of the night. The crowd thinned quickly to about half, so with three potographers, it was about a 1:15 ratio. We quickly ran out of new things to shoot, and just focused on capturing people doing interesting things. As the eening wore on, and the booze settled in, more interesting things happened. ut it was still pretty sedate as far as receptions go. When something fun did happen, it was like Brittany Spears leaving a rehab center - our flashes and stobes lit up the night.

Between the three of us, we took a little under 2,000 photographs for the day. That should boil down to about 200 keepers, and maybe 50 we're really happy with. At least, I'm hoping it's that many. Now it's time to do the sorting, rating, and winnowing before we jump into Photoshop for minor corrections, cropping, etc. Our web site (through BluDomain) is underway, and should be up in time to deliver the proofs of this wedding to the clients.

First wedding, done.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Open Standards

It seems to me that, just like the computer industry, the manufacturers of camera equipment should develop and embrace more open standards. Yes, that would probably have an impact on sales of some peripheral items, as consumers would have choice. But forcing someone to buy an inferior product because nothing better works with the platform is bad for business in the long run.

My Canon camera uses CF cards, and my business partner's Nikon uses the same cards. Neither Canon nor Nikon manufactures memory cards, so there's no threat in adopting that standard. And that's great for us - it means we can swap cards easily. Now, how about that speedlight? Can I use my Canon master flash to fire your Nikon slave unit? Can I borrow that bitchin' fisheye lens? No way. The big manufacturers want to keep consumers in-brand for big ticket items like that. Ok, how about camera batteries? No, although for the life of me I can't fathom why they don't share a battery standard. Cables? Can we just use an IEEE standard port for each connection, so that I have choice? The other day I was going to buy an external battery pack for my Canon speedlight. The salesman had both a Canon and a Quantum unit on the counter. I really liked the Quantum. It was serious gear, and I wanted it. Lucky for me, it was $10 cheaper than the plastic crapfest that Canon sells. But wait, only the Canon battery pack can plug into the proprietary jack on the 580EXII flash unit. To use the Quantum, you have to buy a $40 module that pretends its a 4-pack of AA batteries and slides into the flash. But the battery door won't close. Oh, and Quantum doesn't make a module for that battery pack to fit the 580EXII. So the choice was really just a tease; I bought the Canon and I'm grumpy about it.

Since Canon and Nikon don't work together, we had to go to a third-party radio trigger solution so my partner and I could interchangeably fire our stand-mounted lighting. The mod to add a second non-TTL hot shoe running on the PC port (yay, a standard port!) is shown in the photo of my camera above.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


A few moments at sunrise on the beach in Myrtle Beach, SC.

Corporate Finance

I suspect if I was to do a balanced scorecard on my photography business at this point, it would show a gloomy picture. But like all businesses, the start up months are going to be difficult financially. Once the business gets some traction, that should turn around...if I'm lucky and good.

So far:

CAPEX has been painfully high, relatively speaking. I have replaced all of my gear, and added a lot to it. A new-to-me camera body, two speedlights, a flash bracket, external flash battery pack, stands, umbrella, diffusers, blah blah blah. Thankfully my lenses will do for now. At last count I was up to about $2,500. Like I said, relatively painful. I could easily spend just that on a camera body. I had considered not getting the external flash battery unit, but I did a bit of math and figured that at a cycle time of about 6 seconds, I would get only two shots of the bride and the other wedding party members walking up the aisle. With the battery unit, I cut the cycle time down to 1.5 seconds. Done.

Operational Expenses have been modest. Rather than buy a backup camera body and lens, which would drive my CPAEX up even higher, I rented from For $160 I rented a Canon 40D (same as my primary body) and a very nice EF 24-105mm F/4L IS lens for a week. I had considered going cheap and skipping this expense. Then I had a vision of Weird Uncle Al bumping into me before the ceremony and knocking my camera to the floor. A few minutes after that vision I had charged the rental to my AmEx. My assistant (who also happens to be my son) will use the backup body as a third shooter. If my camera fails, I'll just take his and he can use the old D30 we have as the "belt and suspenders". If my partner's Nikon fails, he will have to suck it up and use a Canon for the day. There are worse things in life.

With two speedlights and the external battery unit, I calculated that I need to take 48 AA batteries with me. That gives me what I know I'll need, plus a healty emergency supply. I'm thinking I'll stop at Costco.

I have some staffing costs to deal with. I split the revenue with my partner 50/50. Out of my share, I'll pay the assistant. This isn't the most fair way to handle the expense, but there are back office complications that make it the best way. So goes the family business...for now.

On the revenue side, I gave this weekend's client a very steep discount. The total fee will be $750 (excluding any prints). Yes, this is alarmingly low. But the fundamental approach to pricing strategy is clear: never price based on cost, price based on what the market will pay, minimizing consumer surplus. With no wedding portfolio to show yet, I figure I'm lucky to get a paying client at all! Depending on how you look at it, there might even be some supplier surplus in this deal ($750 cash + portfolio + experience + OJT). Anyway, here's how that breaks down:

Gross Revenue = $750
Shared Expenses = $50 (gas for round trip to Frostburg)
Net Revenue = $700

My share (at 50%) = $350
My Costs:
Pay for the assistant = $100
Expendibles = $40
Camera Rental = $160
My Net = $50

Ok, so I'm no Warren Buffet here. At $50 for the day, I would have to do over 50 weddings before I saw a return on my investment. But that's not really the situation. After June, assuming by then I have a worthy portfolio, I'll start charging our full "low low" price for weddings. And when the warm weather is here to stay I hope to do a bunch of candid portraits, which will have a much higher rate of return for now than the weddings do.

I went into this not expecting to make much money. So far, I have met my expectations.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Soccer Diversion

What got me serious in photography was soccer. First, it was taking photos of my kids who both played into high school. Then it was shots of games when the women's pro soccer league was in DC. For the last few years, there hasn't been much soccer for me to take interest in. But now with the rebirth of the women's pro league, last Saturday brought a nice diversion from the wedding prep I've been focused on.

Our season tickets to the Washington Freedom are pretty sweet - 4 rows back, a few yards off the center stripe. We sit behind the Freedom bench, so we see and hear it all. With my 70-200mm F4L lens, I can get most of the action in midfield, and wide shots of the goals at either end. This game started at 6:00PM, and while there was some sunlight, I had to constantly adjust to the dimming light as the match wore on. The field lighting worked fine, but by the end I was at ISO 1600, F4, and barely able to keep above 1/100th for shutter speed. In a soccer match, that means extreme blur. So my best shots came from the first half wen the light was sweet.

Sometime soon I'll try to talk my way down onto the field and shoot from the end line. That's where the best shots are. But even from the seats it was a nice diversion and a great game.

First Equipment Hack

In preparing for a wedding shoot (4 days from now!) my partner and I discovered we had an equipment problem. Here's the setup:

  • He shoots Nikon, I shoot Canon
  • The Nikon and Canon TTL mechanisms are completely incompatible
  • We'll be using a pair of strobes, each mounted on a light stand and bouncing off the ceiling to light the dance floor.
  • We'll each have a speedlight mounted on a flash bracket.

When we're taking photos away from the dance floor, we'll rely just on our off-camera flash. When we're on the dance floor, we want to trigger the two strobes. Fortunately, with the strobes came a cheapo version of a radio trigger (like a knockoff Pocket Wizard). We tested extensively, and after replacing one strobe that didn't fire properly, it all worked great in isolation.

Here's where the problem came in:

The radio trigger is a hot-shoe mount device. No problem, both the Nikon and Canon bodies have hot shoes. The sync cord for the off-camera flash uses...a hot shoe mount (very important to preserve TTL). No problem, both the Nikon and the Canon have...wait, there's a problem. The bodies only have one hot shoe. We need two - one for the radio trigger, one for the flash.

After much research and consultation at our local Penn Camera, we came up with an easy solution. We purchased a Kalt hot shoe with PC cord ($16.99 at Penn). This cord plugged into the PC port on the camera body, and while it didn't have TTL capability, we were using it to fire the strobes through the radio trigger so TTL wouldn't have worked anyway. We mounted the new hot shoe on the CB Junior flash bracket (an amazing device), but the PC cable was too short to reach the camera body. So we cut into the cable, and soldered in an 18" extension using 24-gauge paired wire. Then we ran that up through the coils of the TTL flash sync cable and connected it to the PC port and the hot shoe. Done! And it looks like it belongs.

Now we have TTL for the off-camera flash. When the flash fires the PC port sends the fire signal to the new hot shoe, which activates the radio trigger and fires the strobes. When we're on the dance floor, we leave the radio triggers turned on and we light up the room. When we're off the dance floor, the flick of a switch turns off the radio trigger, and the strobes don't fire.

I'll post a photo of the mod.

Friday, April 10, 2009


In preparation for the first wedding, my partner and I took a road trip to Frostburg, PA to scout out the wedding and receptions sites. At a little under three hours, the trip ate up the bulk of the day. But it was well worth the effort and time. We only had about 45 minutes in the church before we had to yield to a funeral service. That was enough time to take several test shots, narrow down some settings, and plan some logistics. The light (of course) was problematic, with the altar backgroiund being much brighter than the area where the couple and celebrant will be. With no flashing during the ceremony, we're going to be limited in what we can do with the background getting blown out. The key will be to shoot at angles so we don't get the bright white marble of the altar in the shot. Before leaving the church, we took some shots outdoors.

After the church, we walked a block to the hotel where the reception will be. An old "restored" place, it offered its own challenges. We took some shots outside before venturing in. This was not a Hilton, mind you. It's a small town hotel that has been stuck in time. The first thing we noticed was the grand staircase. It's covered in a bright red carpet (lots of velvety material here), but lit properly it should be an excellent setting for group shots. The helpful desk clerk showed us to the reception room and left us alone to wander. We set up some lighting gear, and spent an hour or so experimenting and taking notes. Then we wandered into the lobby again and tried a few shots there and on the staircase. The clerk showed us a few additional features of the hotel, like the smallest balcony ever built, but they wouldn't work for us. Odd that he didn't show us the jail or the old cock fighting room still preserved in the basement...

After the hotel, we wandered across the street to the Princess Diner where we had a small-town lunch. The bride had tipped us off that this was the best food in town, and might be a fun site for a photo. After casing the joint, we agreed. We're going to take the couple, in tux and gown, to the diner and take a photo with them having a cup of coffee at the counter. Then we hope to take a shot of them at the local theater next door. They have an old-school marquis that I'm hoping we can adjust to our needs. The idea here is to catch the small town flavor as a theme in the shots, since this is where the bride grew up.

The last stop was the local florist. There's only one in town, and they do it all. We spent some time taking photos in their very large store, and had a nice talk with the owner and some of her staff.

We didn't get to visit the baker who is doing the cake - I believe that's a home business so we left it alone.

A few days after the trip we reviewd the test photos, discussed settings, movement, angles, and whatnot, and got a plan down. Being a "J" personality, this is exactly what I needed to prepare.