Thursday, July 19, 2012

Overcoming Obstacles

Pulling Out The Tricks When Conditions Get Tricky

Nobody said that this would be easy.

If you want to accomplish something worthwhile, you're going to encounter some challenges along the way.  You'll need to recognize the most significant obstacles and devise a plan to overcome them.  You also need to stay positive so you can maintain the energy and conviction necessary to get you to your goals.

Good news: we don't need to solve all of the problems at the same time.  We can resolve them in sequence - 'divide and conquer' - as we move toward incrementally better outcomes.

Walking through the park one morning I encountered a group of musicians from Ecuador.  Sometimes I see South American musicians on the street playing flutes over pre-recorded music, but that rarely impresses me.  These gentlemen, on the other hand, were playing all of the parts live, and they sounded really good!

I saw this as an opportunity to take some interesting photos, but there were some hurdles to overcome, i.e. there were some serious technical obstacles to getting good photos in this scenario.

What do you think - are you up for a challenge?  Do you think you could identify the problems in this situation and help me resolve them?  Let's have a look at the conditions to see if we can figure out some ways to improve the quality of our shots.  There's a lot of work to do here; I could definitely use a good assistant.

By the way, I showed some of my initial shots to the musicians.  They gave me nods of approval and asked me to send them copies by email.  I asked whether I could take some additional shots, and they agreed.  I always like to get buy in from my subjects.

Making the introductions wasn't the tricky part.  The challenges in this case were technical and numerous.

So here we go, My Trusty Assistant.  Let's tackle those bothersome obstacles!

Obstacle # 1 - The White Shirts

Our modern, computer-controlled cameras are remarkably stupid devices.  Black, white, and gray all look the same to the camera's light meter.  They can put a man on the moon, but photographers still have to compensate manually for over- and underexposure.

Cameras tend to under-expose scenes that contain a lot of white.  This is why pictures of snow sometimes come out looking gray.  If I had let my camera make the decisions, these photos would have been dark and the faces would have been shadowy and unrecognizable.

Simple Solution - before I shot the musicians I took a photo of the grass.  Grass isn't white or highly reflective.  It has what we call a mid-tone reflectance similar to average gray.  Light meters LOVE mid-tones (they're tuned to average gray), so that's a great place to take an exposure reading.

No, I'm not going to show you the grass photo.  It's just a picture of green grass - nothing exciting - and it served its purpose by making these other photos possible.

Obstacle # 2 - Subject Movement

Musicians move fast.  Well, their hands move fast - really fast.  I didn't want to see blurry fingers on the instruments.  In order to freeze that kind of motion I would need to use a rather fast shutter speed; about 1/1000th of a second would be good.

My initial grass exposure was a little bit slower.  (Watch out!  Here comes the intimidating mathematical portion of the discussion.  Feel free to skip this section if fractions give you a headache.)

Grass exposure: 1/400th of a second @ f/5.6 @ ISO 400

1/400th of a second was about half of the speed that I needed.  In order to boost the shutter speed I would need to trade off in some other area.

I wanted to keep my aperture set to f/5.6 for compositional reasons.  f/4 would have given me more light enabling a faster shutter speed, but the narrow depth of field would have been problematic.

Simple Solution - boost the ISO to 800.  This makes the camera's sensor twice as sensitive to light.  I could now double my shutter speed to 1/800th of a second, which is fast enough to freeze just about any motion that a human body can make, and maintain an equivalent level of exposure.

Final exposure: 1/800th @ f/5.6 @ ISO 800

Nice and fast - no blur!

Obstacle # 3 - Unattractive Lighting

A combination of haze, humidity, and thinly overcast skies created unflattering lighting conditions.  I wanted the musicians to look vibrant, not ashen and sickly.

Simple Solution - we can borrow a technique from our friends in the movie industry.  Replace the light that you have with something better.

For still photographers this usually means adding flash.

It may seem unusual to use flash outdoors during daylight hours, but it's actually very common, and in cases like this, almost unavoidable.

I attached a flash unit to my camera and reset the white balance accordingly to the Flash setting.  I boosted flash compensation to +1.0 so it would overwhelm the natural light falling on the subjects.

Presto!  Warmer light, better colors and skin tones, and fewer shadows - all courtesy of the flash unit.

Obstacle # 4 - Flash and Fast Shutter Speeds

For reasons that I won't get into, flash is typically restricted to a maximum shutter speed of 1/200th of a second.  If you try to use your flash at a higher speed, the camera might not let you do it.  If you force the issue, part of the frame might end up dark; the light from the flash will be blocked the they shutter as it moves across the sensor plane.

That said, I was shooting at 1/800s, remember?  That's four times the normal maximum speed.  How am I getting away with using flash at such high shutter speeds?  Do I have some trick up my sleeve?

The answer is YES, there IS a trick and I'll explain it below.

Simple Solution - The engineering geniuses at Canon, Nikon, Sony, and similar franchises recognized this problem and created an amazing solution that's called ... you going to love this one:

High-Speed Flash Sync Mode

Basically what this mode does is to break the "flash" of light up into a series of very fast pulses.  It still looks like one "flash" to our eyes, but it enables the camera to cover the entire frame with light.

But there are a few caveats to using High-Speed Flash Sync Mode:

  • First, you have to remember to turn it on.
  • Next, you have to figure out how to turn it on.  Luckily, Canon's flash units have a dedicated button that provides immediate access to this function.
  • Finally, you won't find this feature on your smart phone or your point-and-shoot camera.  This is the domain of external flash heads only, and you need to use a flash that's made by the same manufacturer as the camera body - no 'third party' accessories.

If you can get past all of these conditions, High-Speed Flash Sync Mode is a blessing for anyone who needs to add flash to shooting conditions that involve fast shutter speeds.

Obstacle # 5 - Diminutive Subjects

The musicians were rather diminutive, but I didn't want them to LOOK small.  I wanted them to look commanding as though they were up on a stage looking out over the audience.

Simple Solution - crouch down and shoot upward.

Aha!  It works!  Plenty of rock stars and movie stars are short, but they seem larger than life because we're always looking up at them or at least looking them directly in the eye.  We should give our photographic subjects the same courtesy unless there's a compelling reason to photograph them from above.

Such as, for instance, you're a foot taller than they are.  But that could never happen. ;-)

Any worthwhile endeavor will present obstacles.  Don't shy away from the challenge.  Keep a positive perspective and an open mind.  We always have some resources at our disposal. The trick is to apply those resources creatively in order to meet our objectives.

No one said it would be easy, but it's definitely doable.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Lens: 70-200 f/4L IS

Light happens.  Be ready.  Shoot hard.

Copyright © 2012 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved