Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shooting at family events, flash, and courtesy

One place you will regularly see a lot of cameras and camcorders is kids concerts and plays. Parents want to record the event for posterity and to show all the friends and relatives at parties and gatherings. This is an incredible thing to do. Those memories are so precious. There are a couple things that are very important to know or think about when at these events though. Some of it is about courtesy, and some is technical on getting photos of the event. Let's talk technical first.

Camcorders don't usually have to many issues, well other than sound quality. At sometime down the road I will start putting up some posts on video and will start to address things like poor audio. But today I want to focus on still photography. At first it would seem like there is a lot of light coming from the stage. You will realize when you meter it with the camera though that there really is not much light. The first thing most people do is to turn on their flash. That would seem to make sense, except light falls of (techy geek alert) on an inverse square law. In other words, if you increase the distance from the light source by double you reduce your available light by three fourths (you have a quarter of the light you had closer). In non-geek speak, your flash is only good for a short distance, and the things closest to the camera will be a whole heck of a lot brighter than the things farther away. You should expect the on camera flash to only be a reliable light source for maybe somewhere in the area of 15 to 20 feet max, and less if you have a narrower aperture. If you have a speedlight on a hotshoe you will get more power, and might make 25 to 30 feet if you have a really powerful one. But most people are sitting at least 30 feet away from the stage. And the light is diffusing very fast.

There is one other problem with camera flash with a stage production, color temperature. All light has color. The light from a strobe is considered white, and the same as noon day sun. The lights used for stage productions are definitely NOT white (I am going to stay away from all the discussion of color temperature and how it is measured at this point). So if you use a strobe some things will look really odd compared to others as far as color is concerned. You will spend a lot of time try to rectify that in Photoshop afterwards.

The big challenge with photographing the kids is getting a high enough shutter speed so that they are not all blurry. You can use a slow shutter speed and a tripod if they are standing completely still, but how often will that happen? Using a prime lens or expensive zoom will help get a very wide aperture. That is one place to get some light and increase shutter speed, but it rarely is enough. And most people are using zoom lenses that have a max aperture somewhere between f/3.5 and f/5.6 usually. That is much slower than the f/1.8 from my favorite 50mm prime. With the prime lens I get a lot of light, but lose a lot of flexibility because I need to be very close to stage but yet not so close that people at the front of the stage are too close. So a zoom lens works better. But where do we go to get enough light to get decent shutter speed then? When I teach my classes in photography I always tell my students we have a final haven of last resort for light. It technically does not increase light, but the effect is the same. We can go do ISO. ISO "increases" the sensitivity of the image sensor so that it does not take as much light to get a photo. So we crank up the ISO and now we get a good shutter speed. But there is a negative to high ISO, digital noise. So the photo will not be as clean and crisp as it would be with a nice low ISO. You will get good light though, and not need a flash or get motion blur.

The shot above was shot at ISO 3200, which is the max my Nikon D80 will go to. I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/80th of a second at an aperture of f/5.6 for that. The photo is soft, and I needed to use some noise reduction in Aperture on the photo, but it is plenty good for the family album. And I was able to shoot all night long for other shots just like that. This is also why my next body will be the D7000. The D7000 will do amazing high ISO photography, much better than my D80. The Nikon D5100 has the same image sensor, so you can get high ISO for less money than the D7000 too. The D7000 will shoot comfortably at ISO 6400 (a whole stop faster than ISO 3200) and tops out at ISO 12,500. When people ask me for recommendations for cameras, I always ask them what they are going to shoot. If they are going to do a lot of kids programs or other low light photography, and want a DSLR, I will recommend either the Nikon D5100 or D7000. Nikon has just totally outdone themselves when they came out with these two cameras.

Now the little lecture on courtesy. We talked about how the flash really does not do much unless you are really close to the stage. Another thing that using a flash during a concert, ballet, or play will do is just annoy the living daylights out of your neighbors at the concert. There is nothing more disconcerting at a play or concert than to have a flash popping off every two minutes. It is even worse when you realize the gadget is doing nothing for the peoples photos. I would rather have someone talking than popping off a flash on a camera. I will say it is downright hilarious when I see people with speedlights (like at this concert) pointed up at a black 50 foot ceiling thinking they will get some sort of bounce flash effect. The 100 foot round trip for the light is crazy enough, and then you add in the lack of reflectivity of a black ceiling and there would be more light from a little pocket flashlight. Oh, and since we are on the topic of courtesy, make sure you turn off the focus assist light. That is the little red or green light that comes on when you press the shutter button half way down. Just like the strobe, it is not going to do anything other than annoy your neighbors. For focus there WILL be enough light from the stage. And if you are using a DSLR then you can always manual focus too.

I hope this helps everyone the next time they are at a presentation by their kids or grandkids. And I wish you good shooting.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Light drawing

When I am teaching my class I have a number of different exercises to practice different techniques with the camera. When we get to shutter speed and are talking about slow shutter we work with light drawing. It is amazing all the Ooos and Ahhs that the students exclaim as soon as we do the first one.

I don't explain to them what we are doing until after the first photo. I have them put their cameras on the tripod, give them the settings (ISO 100, f/8, 15 seconds shutter on manual), then I have them set to manual  focus and focus on me where I am going to stand. Then we turn the lights in the room off and I give them a countdown to hit the shutter release. Then I draw. When they look at the results and see what is on the screen they are just totally amazed. From that point on we take turns with who will draw.

This is an easy and fun project for learning slow shutter speed and what it does. So far I have done all my pictures with a single light and a single color. One of these days I am going to try multiple colors and lights. I think I can do it. It will be interesting. What I have learned is that when I get ready I need to mentally think of a sheet of paper in front of me. My body is the reference point for where the middle of the paper is. Then as I draw I try to imagine the ink on the page in front of me. This has allowed me to start to get pretty good at putting stuff up that actually looks like something. I think if I can keep the mental image good enough I might even be able to switch lights to start to add more detail and colors in. I guess I have the next post. Time to go light shopping.

What is really amazing with this is it is something you can do at family gatherings as well. It will work with any camera that has a manual setting where you can set the camera properly. You will also need manual focus or the camera will just totally freak out with nothing real to focus on. All bridge cameras and DSLRs should work. Many point and shoots will work but not all. You will also need a tripod or a table that is just the right height or something else steady to put the camera on. Hey, this is a great thing to do with that tripod you get for Christmas from your family reading my recent past post on gift ideas.

So see what kind of creativity your family has. I bet the teens will like it the most. The light does not have to be a lot. I used the "flashlight" on my Droid 2 camera phone for these. I am planning on picking up a few of those cheap $2.00 LED flashlights from the store for future attempts. Then I am going to get some colored cellophane or some colored strobe gels to tape over some of them for different colors to draw with.

If you create something and post it on line make sure to post the link in the comments below. It would be interesting to see what others come up with. And I think for the next post I am going to try to do a more colorful version of the Christmas tree up above. It will be interesting.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Christmas or Hanukkah List 2011

Well we are less than a month from Christmas. I never thought about doing this post until this last week. So, although it should have been out before Thanksgiving, here it is anyway. Of course we all know that cameras and camera equipment do not a good photographer make. However, we also know that the right tools can make the job much easier. So we always drool over this or that item. Sometimes we don't even know we want/need something until we see another photographer shooting with it.

This first item is something that I never thought about putting on my list until this summer when I saw a couple people with them. It never occurred to me that my strap that came with my venerable D80 was not really all that well designed. That is until I saw someone using a BlackRapid strap. These are awesome. I am definitely getting one (cannot believe I have not already rushed out to get it). Now I need to wait until after the holidays in case someone decides to get one for me (hint hint). The strap will let the camera hang so comfortably at your side (instead of bouncing off your chest) until you need it. Then with one swift and natural move it is up in place to shoot. They have several, including a strap specifically for women.

They have video on their site showing the use of the strap too. Make sure to check it out.

The second thing that is like a must have for any photographer is a tripod. This is especially needed for low light photography. It also works nice if you want to take photos of yourself. There are a lot of really good tripods out there. And let's face it, it's a tripod. Nothing revolutionary about them. The biggest differences will be first, in the material it is made out of, and second, the head on top and how well it works. Don't feel you need to go expensive unless you have a need for extreme light weight, or really stiff or something. I happen to stand 6'6" tall. My venerable cheap tripod that I got from Walmart 26 years ago has worked well, but it has always been short. I was in Best Buy the other day and found something pretty amazing. A Sunpak tripod that is listed as standing 72" tall! Now this is something where design matters a lot. I think they measure these without the center post extended too, because once I extended the center post all the way up it would put the camera above my eye level. At $99 it is more expensive than my $49 cheapy, and it weighed about twice as much, but it is totally worth it. They had a really nice Manfrotto that was very tall to, but for me I am not quite ready to spend two Franklins on a tripod yet.

For stocking stuffers you can never go wrong with memory cards. I always recommend to buy a name brand card. Do not go cheap on these. The last thing you want is a memory card failure during your parents 50th wedding anniversary or your child's 1st birthday!  There are some really good places to go for memory cards. I usually go through or for computer related stuff and memory cards, but you could go to or for your cards too. You will find them a lot cheaper on line than in a brick and mortar store.

If you have someone that wants to move beyond a point and shoot and start to get more involved in photography, then I would recommend one of the FujiFilm bridge cameras. I think I would go right to the top of the line of these with the FujiFilm HS20 camera. This is just a downright awesome camera for someone that wants to have a wide range of features without spending a mint on lenses and such. I started my serious digital photography with a FujiFilm S5200 and loved it. I put several people in the HS10 and they adore the camera. Yeah it has a bit of shutter lag compared to my D80 and has a touch more digital noise at higher ISOs, but for around $450 you have a camera that will do focal lengths from 28mm to 720mm with an optical stabilized lens, macro photography, has a hot shoe for external flash, and even does video.

One of the really important things for those that shoot a DSLR is lenses. There are a lot of choices here and it can get really confusing at times. Remember that for any particular focal length there are several "right" choices between brands, and even sometimes slight differences in models. I am going to list here some of what I consider top choices.

One lens that I think is a must lens in anyones camera bag is the 50mm f/1.8 lens. It is just a top notch solid all around lens. The aperture is so wide and lets in so much light. When you want to take photos of family inside a house or kids at a concert this is a great lens to have. Sure it is not a zoom lens, and you might have to crop later if you cannot get quite close enough, but you will have the light you need. Canon has one for you Canon shooters out there. If you are shooting Nikon you will want the G model if you have like a D5100, D40, D3100, or one of the other low end bodies that does not have a focus motor in the body. If you have something like my trusty D80 or the D7000 I drool over or a D300 etc. you can get the less expensive model of the 50mm.

I love Sigma lenses too. If you are looking for a really nice and inexpensive zoom lens then Sigma is a very nice way to go. A good all around lens for kids sports and other outside shooting is the 50mm to 200 mm lens. It is wide enough at the bottom end for some nice portraits, but will reach out and touch someone too. This particular Sigma lens has optical stabilization (OS - on Nikon lenses it is called VR and on Canon lenses it is called IS) for the low price of $159. They also have an 18 mm to 200 mm that is both without OS and with OS for the lens. Keep in mind that the links I have are for the Nikon mount version. If you shoot Canon or some other body make sure you get a compatible mount lens.

If you plan on shooting birds or wildlife and need even more reach Sigma has a lens for that too. They have a really nice 70-300mm lens that will do macro photography too. It does not have OS, but is a really nice camera. If you are shooting outside in the sun with fast shutter speed it should be fine (oh and with that tripod you got this Christmas). They also have the same lens with OS. I cannot stress how important the extra focal length is if you want to get wildlife that is a ways out there. The nice thing is that these Sigma lenses will not break the bank.

For Canon shooters I really am not the person to recommend anything with camera bodies. I shoot Nikon and FujiFilm. Those are what I know. Sorry. For those that shoot Nikon, well we are still waiting on an announcement for a D400 or a D800 or any of the other rumored upper end bodies. If you are looking for something this year though to replace an older body there are a couple really nice choices. Either the D5100 or the D7000. Both of these cameras have the same image sensor in them. So they both do AWESOME for high ISO shooting. I mean incredibly awesome!!! If you shoot a lot of low light then these bodies will rock your socks off. I am gunning for the D7000 personally. The D5100 is a definite entry level body. It does not have a focus motor built in. It also will not run as a commander for the Nikon Creative Lighting System. It has fewer focal points, and slower frames per second. But it is also something $400 less than the D7000. If you are looking for shooting family photos then it is a solid choice. But if you want to do sports, or get more serious in shooting then spend the money for the D7000. It is just rock solid. If you need the rapid shooting of continuous frames per second on it though, and want to go above 10 frames before the buffer fills, you will need to shoot JPG AND you will need a memory card that is the UHS-1 specification so you get a faster card. Yes they are more expensive, but well worth it if you need a longer burst of shots. I cannot say enough about either of the cameras, but especially the D7000. Personally I would steer away from the D3100. For only $200 more you get a lot more camera.

Well I hope this holiday season gets you exactly what you want. I put a few suggestions here. If you have others (I know a lot was left out here) put them in the comments below. I am anxious to hear what others think are needed items for shooting.