Saturday, February 20, 2010

Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction in Canon Cameras

I finally broke down and got a Canon 5D Mark II a while back and when reading the manual, I found the noise reduction info somewhat lacking. Namely, I use Lightroom almost exclusively, and was wondering if LR was able to make use of the noise reduction features such as "High Exposure Noise Reduction" and "Long Exposure Noise Reduction" (many times the NR data is saved as metadata, and 3rd party apps can't read it). Searching on the web didn't reveal much about Long Exposure NR so I emailed my CPS rep and Check Westfall at Canon. Here is the conversation:

Hi Bob and Chuck,

Question… I know the data from turning on High ISO noise reduction isn’t used by 3rd party software like Lightroom, but what about Long Exposure NR? Does the long exposure noise reduction change the actual pixel data in the RAW file or is it separate data that isn’t used by lightroom?



Hi, Tommy:

Long exposure noise reduction applies to RAW data as well as in-camera JPEGs. Adobe software such as Lightroom and ACR will "see" it because it's already in the image data before RAW conversion.

Best Regards,
Chuck Westfall


So there it is in case you were wondering. If you use Lightroom, turning on Long Exposure NR will make a difference but High ISO NR won't.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ringflashes and Travel Photography

When I created the pocket ringflash a while back, I got lots of emails from photographers wondering how useful it would be for travel photography purposes. Seems like people generally think of ringflashes as being only for fashion but they have been used for a variety of genres by photographers like Chris Wray-McCann, Martin Parr, and others. For travel photography, I think it works well in creating a different and modern look. Not for everyone or every assignment but it defintely has its place. Some recent travel photos I've used it for:

The Joys of Life On the Road

Coming back after 6 months abroad to a stack of mail that looks like this (actually this is about half of it, found another pile tucked elsewhere, woohoo):

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Photographing under fluorescent lights

When out taking photos under fluorescent lights, you may have noticed weird things happening with your images such as the color temperature and/or exposure shifting between frames even though you haven't changed your settings. Here's an example of what it might look like (photos were taken in rapid succession in Manual mode):

The reason for this is simple, fluorescent lights flicker. Too fast for your eyes to see, but depending on your shutter speed, your camera may be able to pick up the fluctuations. If the light uses a magnetic ballast, it will flicker "off" 100-120 times a second (2 times for every cycle of the 50-60Hz line power). At high enough shutter speeds, one frame might be taken while the light output is at its peak, and another frame taken while the light is at its lowest resulting in significant exposure differences. At slower shutter speeds, the fluctuations end up being integrated together so you won't notice a difference between frames.

The good news is many if not most fluorescent lights you encounter now use electronic ballasts that operate at 10kHz or more, which means the flicker is too fast to be a problem for normal shooting. Under magnetic ballasts, you can try to use a lower shutter speed and/or bracket and this will usually solve the problem.

One interesting note is many people are noticing this phenomenon for the first time with digital cameras and think it's an issue with digital. This is a misconception of course because the same exact thing will happen with film. The only difference was back in the film days, we rarely shot with film above ISO 400 or 800 because the photos would look too grainy. Digital cameras now however have so little noise (some DSLRs like the Canon 5D Mk II or the Nikon D700 produce images at ISO 6400 that look better than some 400 speed film!) that people often shoot at high ISO settings all the time, which means higher shutter speeds that better reveal the flicker. Also with digital we shoot more frames because it doesn't cost anything and can instantly review the image so more people are noticing the problem. If you see it though, don't worry and don't return your camera, just follow the advice above and keep shooting.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Power Drill Meets Tripod, or How I learned to Love the Gitzo

Gitzo tripods are favorites among professional photographers and for good reason. They are light, durable, and among the most stable tripods available. However they are far from perfect. The most common complaint is that the leg locks are slow and cumbersome to use. There's not much you can do about that though. The "slow" rotating collar leg locks are part of what makes them so stable and durable.

Another complaint with many models, such as my Gitzo 1228, is that the sections don't drop free and spring back and forth when you are extending/collapsing them . This is because the legs are almost airtight, and so when you pull the sections out, the partial vacuum pulls them back in, and vice versa. The only openings for air to pass through are around the collars which poses another problem. The gaps are big enough that they allow water to get in, but positioned where the water can not easily get out. Therefore, if you are wading in the water with your tripod, water will make its way through the collars and into the legs. It gets trapped in there and will slosh around until you disassemble a section to let it drain.

My Gitzo tripod submerged in a lake at Yosemite NP

I'm not sure why Gitzo didn't just design the upper leg castings to have holes for air and water to pass through. If they thought it would reduce debris inside the legs, the existing design just makes thing worst by forcing debris through the wear surfaces of the collar, and trapping it in there. Well... always looking for an excuse to mod something, I thought I would break out the power drill and fix this problem.

First thing to figure out is where to drill. For my Gitzo 1228, I decided on the beveled face on the inside of the upper leg casting. The reasoning behind this was I wanted the hole to face inwards to minimize dust and debris getting in. I also wanted it in a spot that would not weaken the casting, hit the carbon fiber legs where it might propagate a crack, or interfere with the angle lock. Additionally I wanted the hole at the very end of the leg so that it would be easier to purge trapped water. Drilling down the bevel at ~ 30 degrees, the hole actually enters the inside of the casting through the top. Perfect for what I wanted.

Location of the breather hole

You will want to completely disassemble the legs before drilling. It's fairly straightforward, simply remove the bolts, notice the 2 opposing bolts that hold the leg in place need to be torqued at the same time though. Make note of which side the washers face and do one leg at a time so you don't mix up the parts. It probably doesn't matter but if you have an old tripod, these wear surfaces have been broken-in against each other and so you don't want to mix things up. Remove all leg sections so that you don't get magnesium shavings in the legs and on the collars when you drill.

Tripod horror movie

Make sure you hold your drill at an angle close to what you see here. If it's too perpendicular, you'll end up drilling into the hole on top of the casting for the bolt. I used a 3/32" drill bit. It isn't so big that it will weaken the casting or let a lot of debris in, but it's big enough to let a sufficient amount of air in and out and equalize the pressure in the leg.

After you are finished drilling, make sure you clean off all the shavings, especially on the inside of the leg. I just used a paper towel pushed in and out by a thin rod. Bolt it all back together and now you got a Gitzo tripod that is easier to extend and collapse. If you get water trapped inside the legs, now you can just turn it upside down and pump it out by collapsing the leg. Now if only I could figure out a way to make them less expensive.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Digital Cameras in Cold Weather

Dog Sled
-40F in the Canadian Arctic

People are often emailing me asking about how digital cameras perform in severe cold weather so I figured I would make a blog entry on it. There are a few problems and quirks that pop up but nothing insurmountable.

  1. The first thing you will notice is that your battery life goes way down. With cheap aftermarket batteries, this can happen even in 40 degree weather. When I went up Mt Kilimanjaro to do a shoot for a travel outfitter, I had to bring 5 batteries for my Canon DSLR with me (since obviously there's no place to charge batteries on the 7 day hike). With Canon factory NP-E3 batteries running ~$130 a piece, I couldn't afford to buy many of those. I ended up buying several aftermarkets batteries, 2 from Eforcity, 1 Black Diamond, 1 Delkin, and 1 Canon OEM to supplement my worn out NP-E3 that came with my camera. The ones from Eforcity were the cheapest at less than $20 and one of them lasted all but 5 minutes out of the box. That left me with 5 batteries to take to Africa, luckily it was just enough. One the way up, I noticed when the temp dropped below 50F, the battery strength would drop way down on the aftermarket batteries. Some died altogether. Luckily I remembered I had the same problem in the Canadian Arctic and used the aftermarket batteries first at the lower altitudes and saved the Canon OEMs for the summit. The good news is the batteries come back to life when they are warmed up. Some people keep them in a pocket with hand warmers, I find keeping it in an inside chest pocket works fine. Some photographers will keep the batteries in the pocket until needed - which is fine when you can get by with thinner gloves but if you are in the arctic and it's -40, you typically are wearing gloves that are too thick to easily swap batteries in and out. Some hardcore cold weather shooters keep the batteries on their bodies and run a wire to the camera. Some Canons come with dummy batteries for studio shooting which can easily be rigged to do this.
  2. You will also notice the LCD displays are slow to respond. At -40, the back screen on my 1Ds MkII can take a second or two to display the new photo when I am flipping through the shots. It actually looks quite funny, as if it were stuck in slow motion. The top deck LCD will do the same.
  3. Some people think that for very cold temperatures, cameras need to be sent the manufacterer for "winterization" and recalibration. This is more old thinking than anything, left over from the days were cameras were heavily dependant on springs and and old lubricants. There’s no need to go through such drastic measures with modern SLRs. When I worked on developing camera systems at NASA, all we did to modify the F4/5 (aside from building a thermal blanket for it) for the rigors of space was have Nikon change out the lube and that was more to prevent sublimation/evaporation in the “vacuum” of space than for the temperature extremes. No springs broke, no recalibration of shutters were needed. Many photographers use digital SLRs today in arctic conditions as they came out of the box without problems.
So there you have it. More than anything watch your batteries and you should be OK.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Quick review of the Thermaltake BlacX eSATA drive dock

My complete photo library is ~1TB nowadays. By freak occurrence, I once not only lost the photos on my workstation due to hard drive failure, but my back up drive died also at the same time (they weren't connected, there was no power surge, just sheer bad luck)! It took several weeks of hunting around for a controller board for my backup drive before I could fix it and recover the data. Since then, I've been rather OCD about backing up my photos on at least 3 drives.

Before, I just swapped hard drives in and out of an enclosure and copied the master photos on my computer onto the external drives. It worked fine but it was slow and when you back up hundreds of GB of photos on a regular schedule, it gets to be a real pain.

Then I read about the Thermaltake BlacX eSATA drive dock and it sounded like just what I was looking for. It was announced by Thermaltake last year but it wasn't available until recently, and for less then $40, I thought I would jump on it.

It uses an eSATA connection so it's much faster than typical external drives that use USB. Also the docking interface makes it much easier to swap drives in and out, no more unscrewing enclosures and plugging and unplugging power and data cables.

The only question now is how does it really work. I ran a quick test using HD Tach and here are the results:

As you can see, using eSATA, the transfer rate is 2-3X faster than using the USB port. The performance is there and so is the price. You can buy several OEM drives for cheap and just swap them in and out of the dock. This is also much more reliable than buying complete external drive units. A lot of photographers unknowingly buy external drives which are advertised as 1TB etc... but they are actually two 500GB drives cobbled together in a RAID 0 configuration. This is the worst thing you can do because it more than doubles your chance of losing your data due to hardware failure. I say more than because not only do you lose your data if one or more of your drives die, but also if the RAID controller goes bad or the stripe is lost. It also makes recovery of the data much harder than with single drive failures. If you google "dead LaCie drive", you'll see what I mean.

Bottom Line:
So far eSATA drive dock looks like a winner, I would recommend it to anybody that needs an external drive. Just make sure you take care of the bare drives. I'm using this 1TB hard drive with it without problems, you'll also need an eSATA card if you don't have one.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

When quick release clamps are too quick to release

For my tripod setup, I use an Acratech Ultimate Ballhead and a Gitzo 1228 for the lightest combo available that can still reasonably stabilize my 1Ds MkII + long lens (usually a Canon 100-400 or 70 - 200 f2.8). I've been using this setup for years with no major problems. However there have been a few times where the clamp worked itself loose and other times where I thought I had tightened it down but it was actually mounted loose. Luckily I always noticed it before it was too late, and clamped it down. Well "always" until a couple of weeks ago:

I was shooting in the wine cellar at a winery in Israel (had not started drinking yet, honest!) and having a good time talking to the guide and my ex-girlfriend (who was just asking me a few days earlier why I'm not more careful to make sure my camera doesn't fall out from the QR clamp):

Then when I picked up the tripod, I see my camera free falling in slow motion..... thud..... I wasn't too worried as I had dropped my camera plenty of times. But this time was different. It was a 5 foot drop onto solid concrete. When the guide picked up a clear piece of plastic and handed it to me, I knew I was in trouble. It was the plastic cover to the top LCD:

The LCD was broken, nothing worked, and when I took off the lens, I saw the mirror stuck in the up position and the shutter buckled. It landed square on the top shoulder of the body so the lens (16-35) was ok, but the flash mount was dented also:

Well I didn't think it could be fixed but I took it the next day to the Canon service center in Ramat-Gan and the guys did a bang up job replacing the shutter, mirror box, LCD, flash shoe mount, and re-calibrating everything. It only took a few hours, we did some shopping on Bialik street, caught a movie, came back and it was as good as new...whew.... and didn't cost too much either (~$650 with my CPS discount).

First order of business when I get back will be to replace the twist knob QR clamp with a lever locked one like the ones made by Really Right Stuff. I thought about doing it a while back but could not get the one that came with the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead off. Turns out they require heat and a lot of torque to remove. I'll make sure I get it off somehow this time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Well it sounded like a good idea

I was thinking when I started my last trip to Africa that I would use this blog as a journal, but my general laziness and the miserable internet connections there put an end to that idea rather quickly. But hey, I got 2 entries in.... if you count the one I made from the airport.

I'm not going to try and recap the whole trip, there was a lot that happened and it was pretty good experience so I'll just let a few of these photos tell the story:

Tanzania Elephant

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Interview on

I did a little interview with the excellent Olaf Bathke, you can read it here:

More great content from Olaf:
Olaf Bathke from Kiel- photograph of the mood

Saturday, August 18, 2007

2 nights in Nairobi

Well it's been a couple of nights since I arrived in Africa and I'm just now getting back on the net (which is a long time for me not to have my internet fix). So far, Nairobi has lived up to Lonely Planet’s description as being both “a welcome injection of first world razzmatazz” and a “seedy, scruffy city with an air of barely contained violence.”

My flight landed late on Thursday and I got to my hotel after dark, which isn’t always the best thing to do if you’re staying in downtown Nairobi. I was planning on staying at the Terminal Hotel but couldn’t find any contact information for them before I left so I never made a reservation. I had the cab driver drop me off there anyways but when I got to the desk, they said they were full. Luckily I was traveling by myself as most of the people I have traveled with tend to freak out when we arrive in the destinations I’ve talked them into going to, and then find out I hadn’t bothered to make any plans or reservations. I was imagining the chewing out I would have received if they had been here. Well it ended up working out as it usually does, next door was the Downtown Hotel where I got a single room with hot water and bath for 1300 shillings a night. I think that is around $20, but I haven’t checked the exchange rates yet, which I probably should since I’ve been blowing through my shillings like water (or the Kenyan equivalent, Tusker Beer) at the bars.

Looking for something to do when I arrived Thursday night, I ended up chatting with the guys that work at the front desk. I asked for them to recommend a good bar where tourists and locals hang out. The security guy ended up walking me to a place called Florida 2000.

It looked fairly sharp but the seediness came out in a hurry. Within 3 minutes of entering, the local girls descend on anything wearing a Khaki shirt. I thought the women in Cuba were aggressive, these ladies made them look like Puritans. Some of them were fairly fun to talk to though and the people watching was great, nothing beats watching British tourists trying to pick up the local women and female Japanese tourists bounce back and forth between being quiet & demure and screaming & tearing up the dance floor. In the process of bouncing from stool to stool in the club to run away from the overly friendly, I ended up bumping into a nice Kenyan gal from Nakuru who wasn’t err… working it like the others. She was quite attractive with almond shaped eyes with the cheekbones that are distinctively Kenyan. We left the club and ate some egg sandwiches they sold on the street. For some reason, food always tastes great at 4am.

I woke up earlier than I should have the next day, jet lag was kicking in. Plus being incredibly thirsty had something to do with it also. And oh yeah, there’s music blaring through the walls and construction was going on one wall away. I got some food across the street at the Nakumatt shopping center and wandered around town. Walking around the River Road area was as dodgy as they describe in the guide books. Everyone was staring at me like I had chopsticks coming out of my ears, it was fun. I walked into the Scandinavian Express bus station. Didn’t see any Scandinavians but I found out that the buses to Arusha leave at 7am. I was planning on going out one more night in Nairobi so that ruled out leaving the next morning (Saturday), I can normally handle my booze ok but my hangovers don’t go well with moving vehicles.

Going against my better judgment, it was Friday night and I asked the front desk guys again about good but less seedy bars to go nearby. The security guy from the previous day comes out with a smile and escorts me down the street again. Somewhere lost in the translation, he thought I wanted to go back to Florida 2000 and we started walking towards there. When I told him I was looking for a place with less umm…. women with questionable motives, he took me to some place called Seemas(sp?). I should have explained I wanted to go to a place with less men looking to pickpocket you also. I was there maybe 5 minutes when while passing some guy near the crowded dance floor, he tried to fish out the contents of my left pocket. I grabbed his hand and gave him a good shove in the back. His response was to point to and try to blame the guy in front of him. Some guy in a suit saw the altercation and pointed to the guy as if to ask “did he try something?” I nodded and the next thing I know they are throwing him out of the club. I got a beer and was poked and prodded by the local gals again, and I wasn’t even wearing a Khaki shirt, somehow they knew I was a tourist. The place was seedier than even the Florida 2000 so I jumped into a cab and thought I would try some of the spots mentioned in the Lonely Planet book. First up was Pavement just outside of downtown. It was a very nice setup. An airy restaurant on the outside and an edgy club inside. No hassles here, other than some guy in dreads offering me drugs but unlike some of the downtown patrons, he didn’t push when you said no. Ended up chatting with him a bit, he had some interesting things to say as drug dealers always do.

I had arranged for the cab driver that took me to Pavement to meet me back outside at 1:30 so I went out to meet him. I thought I’d also check out Simba Saloon since that was mentioned as being the hottest spot by Lonely Planet. The place kind of reminded me of Andres Carne de Res in Bogota. It’s a big rustic restaurant on the outskirts of town, with a dance floor in the center. Not bad. I hit the dance floor with some gal from Mombasa. I told myself if I’m not going to exercise during the day as part of my attempt to get in shape for Kilimanjaro, I’d dance at night. My legs are a little sore today so it must have worked. At 3:30, I went out to meet my cab driver again and just called it the night. I’m not as good at back to back nights of binge drinking as I used to me.

One thing I noticed from going around Nairobi is that you don’t see many tourists. Most people fly in and get out ASAP. I decided 3 days in Nairobi was plenty and I’ll be back later in the trip anyways so this morning, I booked my ticket to Arusha where I will meet up with a client and drop off my safari & mountaineering gear to hold while I head to the Tanzanian coast. I can’t wait to get some sand under my feet.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Africa, Boingo, etc..

Well I'm off to Africa, something I've dreamed about since I was a kid. Kenya, Tanzania, and Madagascar is the plan, along with a shoot for a travel agency that will take me on safari and hiking Kilimanjaro. This should be good.

With a 5 hour connection in Atlanta, I thought I'd buy a Boingo internet connection. For $7.95/24 hr period, you get a slow connection that will get blocked if you are using a lot of bandwidth. At least that's what happened to me while watching youtube and transferring files. Rebooting seems to get me back in though. Buyer beware, especially when buying things that ought to be free.

Editing to add: Seems like I didn’t have any problems with being locked out by Boingo in Amsterdam. Another communication problem popped up though and it seems AT&T did not enable roaming for my account and now my phone doesn’t work. I’ve been with them for years but in the absolute mess with their merger with Cingular, my account was transitioned from the old AT&T to the new AT&T and my roaming ability seemed to have dropped along the way. In trying to log into my account on their website, it seems like my old Cingular password didn’t work so I got locked out and applied for a new password. Instead of sending it through email, they text messaged me my new password. Brilliant idea on AT&T’s part for customers who are having service problems.

Today I tried calling their service number (long distance from Kenya), only to have my call dropped after I enter my phone number (when they try and transfer you to an agent). After getting dropped 3 times, I gave up. It just reminded me of my consulting days where I quickly found out that companies are often the worst at doing what they sell. The software companies had the most fragmented databases, the management consulting companies had the worst management structure, and here AT&T can’t seem to route my calls without dropping them. Now that I am thinking about this some more, photographers have the worst self portraits, I’m guilty here too. Agh....

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Dual Flash Umbrella Stand Adapter

As every Strobist knows, we're often working at the limits of what our flashes can put out, so anytime we can improve efficiency and output, it's a good thing. One way I wanted to do this was by using an improved umbrella stand adapter. The idea was to have an umbrella adapter that could mount 2 flash units to double the output and also allow them to lay perpendicular to the umbrella to minimize the amount of light that the flash bodies would block. Here is what I came up with:

Dual Flash Umbrella Clamp Adapter

Here you can see how much less light is blocked from the umbrella by laying the speedlights perpendicular (left) vs parallel (right) to the umbrella:

Dual Speedlite Umbrella Clamp Adapter

The components:

Dual Speedlite Umbrella Clamp Adapter

Here is a list of items you'll need to make one:

  1. Photoflex Shoe Mount Multiclamp.
  2. Mini ballheads with flash shoe mounts. I used the ones that came with my Novoflex Unimarm Flash Bracket but if you don't want to buy the entire Unimarm kit, these look like they will work also. They're pricey but they're nicely built and offer a lot of flexibility. This flexibility is useful not just for holding the flash units perpendicular to the umbrella but also if you want to manipulate the speedlites as independent lights with snoots (without the umbrella). Another advantage is the arc is shorter than if you mounted the flash on top of the multiclamp like it's typically done, this allows the flash to sit further back from the umbrella. Lastly, the flash shoe mounts are made from plastic so you don't have to worry about your flash shorting out.
  3. Reversible male stud that comes with the Photoflex Shoe Mount Multiclamp.
  4. A Bogen 3/8" to 1/4" adapter.
  5. A 5/16" lock washer (middle) to keep the stud and adapter from slipping. You can get these at any hardware store. This 5/16" washer will have to be reamed for it to be able to slip over the 3/8 threads. I used a Dremel with a cone shaped grinding stone to do this. In case you're wondering why not just buy a 3/8" lock washer, I tried these and they are just too big, the teeth protrude out from the stud which limits its ability to lock the pieces in place and interfere with the stud being able to slide in and out of the multiclamp.
  6. Two 1/4" lock washers to keep the Novoflex mini ballheads from slipping.
Putting this together is pretty straightforward (I hope). The only trick is to resist the temptation to Loctite all the parts together. You have to remember to keep at least one the mini ballheads off the stud assembly when you put it together so that you can pass the stud through the hole in the multiclamp.

The speedlites I used were a Canon 580EX and a 550EX but of course you can use just about any flash with a standard shoe. The umbrella you see above is the Photogenic 45" Eclipse Plus umbrella which I find to be more efficient than the Westcott collapsible umbrella but the Westcott is more compact so I'll use the collapsible umbrella when I'm tight on luggage space.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Photographs of the Festival

I've been a fan of National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols for a while, you gotta admire anyone that has had malaria as many times as he has. A while back I was watching an NGS documentary where it mentioned that he lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. I remember my first thought was he could live anywhere in the world, why there? Well this past weekend, I went down there and found out.

What started off as a slideshow in his backyard has become a full blown festival in Charlottesville this year. Aptly named the "Festival of the Photograph," it was billed as being a 3 day celebration of "peace, love, and photography" - my interpretation was a Woodstock for photography, but with more hygiene.

Throughout downtown, there were galleries of various photographers. My favorite was probably William Albert Allard's:

There was also an area called YourSpace where anyone could exhibit their work. You can tell they worked hard to make the festival about everyone not just the big names in photography.

Downtown Charlottesville has a beautiful promenade (doesn't look like much here though) and there were large format prints of Nick Nichol's work hanging throughout.

Friday night, there was a slideshow/party at an abandoned warehouse. The setting was perfect and nicely accented with lightning lighting up the sky in the distance. I wish I had my camera with me that night, this is a shot from when I came back the next day to pick up my car. I was worried that it would be closed off but it was open and there was even a dance company in there practicing.

The legendary Eugene Richards at the Paramount Theater:

The crowd waiting for Eugene Richards to speak:

Live music and dancing at the Charlottesville Pavilion before the "Works" presentation, which showcased new photos from some of the top names in photography. Some of the stuff just blew me away.

Photographers being the hippies we are, many preferred the lawn to the chairs under the tent:

This guy preferred the sidewalk, comfort clearly isn't his thing as he was also lugging around an 8x10 (to the right, outside the shot):

Sam Abell greeting fans after his presentation. Quiet photos, loud applause:

David Alan Harvey looks up at his slideshow after coming down from the stage. He was showing his new work on hip hop:

After the sideshows at the Charlottesville Pavilion, there was a party at a building on the other side of the bridge near the pavilion. Here is Andy Levin adjusting his makeshift photographer's scarf. Or at least I hope it was makeshift.

At the "The Bridge" was a slideshow showcasing the works of Lightstalkers. In the foreground is Lance Rosenfield and Anna Maria Barry-Jester.

All in all I thought it was a great experience and definitely inspiring.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Comments are now enabled, agh!

Sorry folks, I didn't realize that the comments weren't enabled on my previous entry on how to build a portable ringflash until I read the always excellent Strobist blog today. I've enabled comments but you can't go in and retroactively enable comments on previous blog entries with blogger, so you can comment here if you want.

Stay tuned, more gadget fun to come....

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Pocket Ringlight

Ever since Maxim magazine made ringflashes/ringlights popular again, photographers have been using and overusing them to get that "look". I gotta admit I'm a sucker for the soft yet harsh quality to the light. Since almost all my photography is done on the move though, the large studio ringlights out there don't really work for me. The small macro ringlights are too weak and do not accommodate lenses with large filter diameters. The closest thing to a portable ring flash I've found was the Sunpak DX-12R. I ordered one and although it says it will work with lenses with filter diameters up to 77mm, they aren't really designed to work with wide angle lenses so I found it vignetted heavily with my Canon 16-35 lens.

Without anything commercially available, I thought I'd try making my own. My first attempt involved using 3 Canon Speedlites, a Novoflex Unimarm, and some music wire. It wasn't pretty and turned out to be as ungainly as the studio lights. My second design was much simpler:

Ring Flash

Basically it's just a ring shaped diffuser made from 2 flat sheets of plastic and reflective fabric for the side walls. Light is supplied by a Speedlite, here I'm using a Canon 580EX. To see how well the light is dispersed around the ring, I took a test shot of the ring itself:

Ring Light

As you can see, it is darker at the top of the ring since the light is being pumped in from the bottom but that's not necessarily a bad thing, it adds to the dark "halo" above your subject, which is one of the trademarks of the ringlight look that I like.

Here's a test shot to see how it works.

Looks pretty good IMO. The range is decent too, I can shoot up to 15 feet or so at f8 and ISO 800. Not great but good enough that I can use this as opposed to dragging around a large studio ringflash setup. You can also use it as an off camera diffuser:

I actually made this ringlight over a year ago thinking I would use it for my trip to Cuba but I never got around to using it. Finally on a recent corporate photography assignment to South America, I thought I would finally put it to work. I've found my corporate clients usually have grown tired of the typical corporate photos and want something a little different, a little more contemporary, but still appropriate for corporate literature. This time, I wanted to do this with the ringlight look. My main client is an oil company and we fly all over the world to their regional offices and I only have a few minutes to photograph their employees, sometimes as little as 5 minutes per person so that doesn't give me much time at all to setup and get the shot. That's where something as simple as this with TTL metering really becomes useful. Also since it maintains full compatability with your flash and camera, you can still use features such as high speed sync (actually came in handy with some "lit" dark sky shots I took), rear curtain sync, etc.. which may not be available with other ringlights. Here are some shots from the trip:

The last photo also used 2 Speedlites as slaves to spotlight the guys in the background.
I was pretty satisfied with the pocket ringflash. The best part is that it adds virtually no weight and requires almost no additional space in my already overloaded camera bag. It folds flat and fits in the side pocket:

If you'd like to make one of your own, here is how. First you're going to need the following materials:

  1. A clear plastic sheet for the front panel. I used polycarbonate (Lexan) for its durability.
  2. A reflective sheet for the rear panel. I used mirrored acrylic (Plexiglass) which is not as tough as polycarbonate but I couldn't find any mirrored polycarbonate.
  3. Flexible reflective material for the side walls and the inside "tube." I used silvered fabric.
  4. Reflective material such as Mylar to mask off the parts of the front panel where I didn't want light leaking through.
  5. Velcro to attach the panels to your flash.
  6. Strong clear tape such as packing tape. Don't use celophane or other types that tear easily.
  7. Large rubber band or scrunchee.
  8. A means to link the flash with the camera. I used the Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2.

I bought the plastic sheets and Mylar from a local industrial plastic supply company, search in your yellow pages, the local hardware stores would charge a lot more for the material if they even have them. If that fails, a Google search will turn up several sources. The silvered fabric was purchased from a regular fabric store. I bought from the scrap pile and I think all the materials ended up costing me ~$8USD altogether.

You'll also need the following tools to construct the ringlight:

  1. A means of cutting the plastic sheets. Preferably a Dremel tool with a cutting bit or a jigsaw.
  2. 200 grit sandpaper to diffuse the front panel. I used an orbital sander which made it easier but you could do it by hand also.

And here is how to put it all together:

  1. The first thing you need to do is to cut out the panels. I used a Dremel tool fitted with a cutting bit. The front and rear panels have the same dimensions as shown below. You might want to alter the dimensions based on your setup though. I made the inside diameter just large enough to accommodate the widest lens hood I would use it with, which in my case is the hood for the Canon 16-35 lens. The ring was made to be roughly 1.75" "wide" since I've found from my previous design, if the ring is too wide, the dark "halo" you get from the ringlight tends to be too soft (for my tastes anyways). The width of the bottom was based on the width of the flash I would use it with (the Canon 580EX). After cutting, I sanded the edges smooth.

    Ring Flash using Speedlites Since I'm sure someone will write and ask, that flash was fired wirelessly. No reason really, I was just bored:)

  2. After cutting the panels to shape, the clear front panel will need to be sanded to make it diffuse. I just used an orbital sander with 200 grit sandpaper but using your hands will work. Just run it over the panel in a circular fashion until it turns white. I chose to sand the inside surface since the roughened surface gets dirty easier and keeping it on the inside keeps it cleaner.
  3. Next put some velcro on the end inside surfaces of the panels so it can hold itself secure to the flash head.
  4. Next the front panel needs to be masked so that light only comes out from the ring area. I just cut the mylar to shape and taped it to the inside of the front panel. Make sure there is a cutout for the velcro.
  5. Now for the most tedious part. Cut a strip of the reflective fabric so that it is long enough to cover the edges of the ringlight. Also create a strip to form a tube around the inner hole. I used a thickness of 2" since that is the thickness of my Speedlites. I also put a taper so that it converges at the tip of the ringlight. My thinking was that it would force the light to the front which would help eliminate the shadow on the top of the ring. I'm not sure how much a difference this really makes, you could just make it 2" throughout to make things easy. I attached the fabric using tape, doing the inside tube first. Make sure you leave the fabric unattached on one panel near the area where the flash is attached to give the panels room to be spread and accept the flash head. Here is what it should look like from the flash head's perspective:

That's it! Put your flash in, connect it with your camera (I used a Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2 to connect to my 1Ds Mark II), and you've got a ring light for $1,700 less than what a typical ringflash would cost! One trick you might want to use to get the flash in without getting snagged halfway on the velcro is to cover the velcro with paper. Then when the flash head is in place, pull out the paper. On the outside, I use one of those scrunchie things to secure it a little more. It always sits on the flash and is also useful for securing bounce cards, snoots, Lumiquest diffusers, etc...

-Tommy Huynh