Photographer Gear – Expensive versus Cheap, Good versus Bad

Don’t be fooled. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to be a good photographer. Every day, the world produces some amazing photographs. Some of them are made in studios, by people wielding tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and some of them are made by people with nothing more than a cheap, mid-ranged camera. Certain styles of photography call for varying amounts of gear. I mean, you can’t be a flash photographer without at least one flash, right? But does that flash need to cost $3,000 or more?

The Price Game: How much do you need to spend on photography?

My goal in the next year is to make a series of videos showing the gear I use. Some of it’s expensive, some of it’s cheap as dirt. And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that expensive doesn’t always mean it’s good, and conversely, cheap doesn’t mean bad. There are times, however, where an extra few bucks among comparable products can mean a world of difference. So, which items are worth the money and which aren’t? Well, just stay tuned over the next few months and we’ll find out!

 

Weather or Not

Sometimes you just hope the stars align. It can be the talent; are they willing to go along with this crazy idea of mine? Sometimes it’s making the client understand the intricacies of the shot. Sometimes it’s something that’s completely out of your control like the weather.

Dealing with, and planning for weather as a photographer

Weather is the bane of all photographers. At best you can rely on the weather channel to give you the conditions that may exist in, oh, say 2 hours from now. For fairly small time frames, weather predictions are usually in the ball-park of what the reality will be. But, say the shoot is 5 days away, a week, 10 days or more! Well, then you’re stepping into some really iffy territory. Sure, you can probably be guaranteed that it’s not going to snow in the middle of July, but trying to predict puffy clouds against a clear sky at sunset a week from today? Yeah, not gonna happen – most likely.  If you’re lucky everything will work out, and if you’re not, you are in for total re-think of how you have to approach your photo.

I’m not trying to get a pretty good photo, I am trying to get THE photo, the one that is in my head. During rainy seasons we’ll often set a primary day and then a back up day just in case the weather is not cooperating at all. This is sort of ‘best-case’ planning for avoiding ‘worst-case’ scenarios. Even then, if your back-up date approaches and the weather still isn’t in your corner, you have to be ready to prepared to make the best of what you’ve been given. Thankfully, bad weather doesn’t mean bad photos. As Moose Peterson says, some of the best photos are made in the worst weather. Even then, however, it’s not a good idea to drag your model into a tornado and just hope she keeps her face to the light as she’s being lifted into the air, on her way to meet the Great and Powerful Oz.

There are also times when a certain type of weather is a necessity in your photo. Your rain jacket product shoot might require a backdrop of storm clouds, or that magazine shoot you’re on depends on a sunny beach while you’re taking photos of surfers. In these cases you have 3 options.

  • Take your photo in whatever weather you’re given and then make any needed changes in post.
  • Head into the studio and just make the weather you need
  • Pay a shaman to keep the bad-weather demons at bay

You wouldn’t be the first photographer who’s had to resort to any of the above options. Personally, in a pinch, I would opt for the studio option if all else fails. But, in my opinion, there’s no substitute for the real thing.

All of this came into play recently when I had a shoot scheduled, several weeks in advance, that called for snow. I wanted the whole sha-bang. Snow on the ground and snow falling from the sky. Why was falling snow important? Well, it would be nice to capture snow falling throughout the image, but more important, nothing beats the look of freshly fallen snow on the ground. So, with my desire for fresh snow firmly in place, so began the anxiety laced waiting game. You know the game, the one where you’re checking weather.com 5 times a day to see if your dreams will come true?

Luck was on my side. As the day approached the likely hood of snow kept increasing. On the day of the shoot snow was forecast to start falling at 4pm, exactly 1 hour before the scheduled shoot – Perfect! We packed up the gear and headed out. Our location was an area next to the Cuyahoga river, deep inside of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Less than 15 minutes from our arrival the snow began to fall, heavily. So heavily in fact we lost control of our car for a moment as it struggled to deal with the inch of fresh snow covering the small, windy road. We made it off of the road and into the parking lot without further issues.

There was a new problem however. Remember all that snow I wished for? Well, there was so much snow falling that it caused a white out. Visibility was no more than just 20 feet or so – not so good for a photo that required a river-scape in the background. Hedging our bets we walked down the trails to our final location and began to set up our gear.

In any situation where you’re dealing with wet conditions (snow is, after all, just water) it’s important to take the safety of your gear into consideration. We took extra shoot-through umbrellas and used them as, well, umbrellas, shielding our flashes from the heavy snow. My cameras, a 5d mark II and mark III, are both weather proofed so as long as I took some simple precautions to keep them from being heavily soaked they would be fine.

By the time we finished our set up, the falling snow had slowed down to a workable level. We got the talent in place and started to snap away. Right away, we knew everything was working beautifully. The snow, the light, the location, the river – all of it was playing together just as I had seen it in my head for all of these weeks. It felt so great to have everything come together at the last moment and, pun alert, just click.

Not all shoots will work out this well. The weather is something you can’t predict with any degree of certainty, at  least not 100%, so you have to plan ahead  – sometimes weeks ahead. Be prepared to be flexible, and make sure  your client understands they may need to be flexible too.  If it’s a large budget shoot with a lot riding on the final frame, it’s worth taking the time to get it done right in the right conditions.

The scene at the Cuyahoga River on a snowy day. Because of the low light conditions, the entire scene took on a blue hue - meaning we wouldn't have to mess with color balance to give the final image an over all cool feeling.

The scene at the Cuyahoga River on a snowy day. Because of the low light conditions, the entire scene took on a blue hue – meaning we wouldn’t have to mess with color balance to give the final image an over all cool feeling.

My wife and assistant, steps in front of the camera as we set up the flashes so we can test the quality of light. Notice how the bluish hue of the background helps her 'pop' out of the background. Cool background colors vibrate well with warm skin tones.

My wife and assistant, steps in front of the camera as we set up the flashes so we can test the quality of light. Notice how the bluish hue of the background helps her ‘pop’ out of the background. Cool background colors vibrate well with warm skin tones.

Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Portrait and Wedding Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.

 

Near the End of Winter

Winter is coming to a close – cold mornings bring snow, all to be washed away by after noon rain, and then draped in snow once again as the sun sets. This transition from winter to spring is often marked by potholed streets edged with slopes of dirty snow, but you can still find some winter-chilled character in landscapes and the people who are interacting with it.

 

Mixing Lighting Sources and using 2nd (Rear) Curtain Sync Flash

A lot of effort goes into lighting your shots. Controlling the pattern of light is always important, but corralling color temperature and light source also fall high on that list of priorities. Mixing continuous light and strobe is easy enough, but not always desired. A flashes ability to choke out ambient light is one of the strengths of strobe photography – especially when the objective is to freeze motion.  There are creative techniques, however, that meld both strobe and continuous light to achieve a mix of motion and stillness.

This application of showing motion can be used for all types of photos. Most often you’ll see this technique in sports photography – it’s always nice to show an athlete in motion, applying their craft. But there are many, non-sports related, uses for mixing flash and continuous light sources. You can use it to imply movement, giving your photo an almost ghostly quality. As the subject moves through your frame, they’ll leave an ethereal trail behind them, this trail is caused by the continuous lighting. At the end of their move they should be frozen in place by the strobe, giving them sharp definition.

The technique uses at least 2 lights (one continuous and one strobe as we’ve mentioned) but you can employ as many lights of each type as needed. Apart from the lighting, there’s some working you need to do behind the camera as well. The first change is fairly obvious – Your shutter speed has to be long enough to allow for capturing motion. Speeds of 1/250 or more are usually required to stop motion, so naturally turning the dial the other way will increase your chances of capturing the movement of your subject. You’ll need to play around with your shutter speed to see what works best for your scenario, but generally speaking a speed of 1/30 is a great place to start, and then dial up or down as needed.

The second piece of work you need to do happens behind the camera. You must switch your camera’s flash sync from 1st, to 2nd curtain (also known as rear curtain). What this does is fire your flash at the end of the exposure, where-as normal flash operation will trigger the flash at the start of an exposure. The reason for this change is aesthetic. 1st curtain flash will make your subject sharp at the start of your exposure, and any motion that happens after the flash will then be captured by the rest of the exposure. The end result is a sharp subject with motion blur moving forwards from the subject. Now, if you’re a fan of cartoons (which I am!) then you’ll know that motion blur should always move away from the subject, leaving a trail of where they have been. 2nd curtain flash does exactly this. With 2nd curtain enabled, the first part of your exposure captures the motion and then, right before the shutter closes, the flash fires, capturing the subject sharply in their end position, leaving a trail of where they’ve been behind them.

Both Canon and Nikon support 2nd curtain flash. To enable this you have to attach a canon (or Nikon if that’s your system) brand flash to your camera. From there you can either set 2nd curtain from your camera menu, or the flash menu – check your manuals because each model of flash and camera does it slightly differently.

There! Now you have 2nd curtain enabled on your on-camera flash! Oh, but wait, there’s a problem. Shooting flash from the camera is OK in a pinch, but for flattering light we know we have to get the flash off the camera. Okay, there we go, now that flash is on a stand and in a better position. But wait, now how to we get 2nd curtain to work? As soon as you take your flash off the camera it stops accepting 2nd curtain as a flash option. How do we work around this?

Well, there are several methods. If you’re using only two lights, one continuous, one strobe, then you can use a sync cable to stretch from your camera to the flash. This will restore communication between your camera and the flash and allow the flash to operate in 2nd curtain. Now, if you’re using several TTL enabled flashes wirelessly you might expect that you could set 2nd curtain operation on your master flash and then use that to communicate to your slave flashes. Sadly, this is not a reality. Canon has stated that 2nd curtain via master/slave communication is not possible, and therefore you can not use this method with an array of wireless speedlites. Bummer!

So, what if you need more than one light, or maybe you need a power output beefier than what your speedlite can produce. Well, I found a work around! Most studio strobes have an optical sensor that will fire the flash the moment it senses a flash from another strobe. So, what I’ve done is take my canon speedlite, using it as an on-camera flash I’ve set it to fire as 2nd curtain and then I bottom out it’s power to 1/128th power. At this power it’s not contributing light to my scene at all. Instead, all it’s doing is triggering my studio strobe at the end of the exposure.

There are other, more expensive options at your disposal too. Pocketwizards, and other transmitters, have their own options for allowing 2nd curtain functionality wirelessly. But, for the most part, the optical slave option works in most situations without any drawbacks.

Below is an example of 2nd curtain flash. For this example I am using a sync cable from camera to flash since I am only using two lights and I’m standing only feet from the subject. My direction to the subject was for her to turn her head as I pressed the shutter button with the anticipation that she’ll finish turning her head by the time the shutters closes and the flash fires. It will require a few takes to get the motion and timing right, but once you reach a working rhythm the photos will start coming in Fast and Furious™.

Head Turn 2nd/Rear Curtain

2nd/Rear Curtain will give your photos dreamy, ghostly motion.

 

Another example of motion blur using the same technique. Here I asked the subject to look at the continuous light source for a 1 second before turning 180º and changing his pose. The flash fires at the end of the exposure to capture him in detail as he begins to play the sax while leaving a motion trail from his original position.

Motion blur achieved through mixed lighting.

Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Portrait, and Wedding Photographer in the NorthEast, Canton, Ohio area.

Becoming the Director – Turning your DSLR into a video/movie/film camera.

Modern DSLRs are amazing devices. Not long after the 5D Mark II introduced the ability to shoot high quality video, the film world took notice and started to use it as an essential piece of equipment in movie making. Not only are DSLRs small, and therefore easy to work with, they are also relatively cheap, and you get the picture quality afforded to you from using your DSLR lenses.

Long before I started taking pictures as a professional photographer, I was (and still am) a graphic designer. One of the many hats I get to wear when I am working for my design clients is that of a creative director. At times this means I am on set, working with a film crew, to make sure the design vision translates seamlessly to video.

I’ve gotten a lot of valuable experience behind the motion picture lens from my time on these types of projects. This has in turn given me a great perspective on how to use my DLSR’s video mode. And now, with everything digitally integrated between a myriad of programs, there’s not much you can’t do with the video you take with your DSLR.

Over the holidays we worked on a little project that called for some video, lighting, visual effects and compositing. I love these types of jobs because they are a great way to extend your artistic vision into several mediums. Below are a couple of stills showing the before and after of the raw footage and final, composited video.

Here is a small, 3 second clip.

Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Wedding and Protrait Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio region.

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