The Last 30 Days In Gear

The Last 30 Days In Gear

I don’t get asked a ton of questions about photography, but when I do they are most commonly things like which lens is the best, how much should I bid on a photography job, and which gear do you use the most? The first two questions are pretty subjective; my favorite lens and how much I charge for a particular job can very greatly from job to job based on the needs of that particular assignment. The last question of which gear do I use the most, however, I think is a really good indicator on which gear do I find most valuable across all of my jobs. As it turns out there is a handful of gear that I take with me on nearly every job that I do. I may not always end up using every piece of this equipment on every job, but I think of them as indispensable to the point where I am at a disadvantage if I don’t take them.

I guess the first thing I should start off with are the cameras and lenses themselves since, you can’t really do a photography job without both of these elements.

My two main cameras which go to every photography job are my 5D Mark II and my 5D Mark III. If you were doing professional photography you always, and I mean always, want two cameras with you at all times. If you’re in the field with one camera and it breaks for whatever reason you are, as they say, “shit out of luck.” The client isn’t going to take very kindly when you offer, “oops”, as an answer. So be prepared and take two cameras. If one of my 5Ds should fail, I have a Rebel and even an old 20D ready to jump in to add an extra layer of assurance. 

The second most important component is of course the lenses themselves. For this I travel with these three following lenses: 50 mm, 24-70 mm, 70-200 mm. The 24-70 and 70-200 are both 2.8, which means I have some flexibility in low-light situations where maybe my flash isn’t readily available. The 50 mm lens is 1.4 f-stop, which means it both has creamy bokeh and even more leverage in low light situations. I’m sure a lot of photographers would disagree with me, but if you have these three lenses in your camera bag I would argue you have 80 to 90% of your professional lens needs covered.

So now that we have the cameras in the lenses out of the way we can talk about all the little bits and pieces that really help your photographs stand out from the rest of the field. These are of course things like strobe lights, speed lights, studio lights, light stands, light modifiers, and all of the other in between pieces of gear.I consider myself a fairly light shooter by comparison to some other heavyweight professional photographers. By this I mean I rely on a fairly small package of gear to get my photos. Let’s begin with lights.

I use four speed lights, the 600 EX-RT from canon, two 430 EX IIs from Canon, and one 285 Vivitar with an optical slave eye attachment. Along with these speed lights I have 1 Einstein and Two Alienbees flash heads from Paul C. Buff (Let’s just call them PCB from here on out). To control these lights I have 5 Aputure Radio transmitters and one CyberSync Commander and CyberSync Slave for the PCB Lights. Everything else is triggered optically if needed. 

My collection of modifiers is something I am fairly fond of, but even with my vast array of light shapers, I really only a handful all of the time. The big 5 light shapers include a 7 foot shoot through umbrella with a detachable ‘softbox’ cover from PCB, a 36 inch Octabox from PCB, a 24 inch speed-lite softbox from Neewer (super cheap, super handy!), and a 22 beauty dish from PCB and 2 Reflector dishes, also from PCB. I have a ton more light modifiers, but these comprise a large portion of what I use on set regularly.

Finally, in my “other” category for gear used on set, I use 2 Avenger C-Stand Completes, 4 twelve foot straight stands, a Manfrotto tripod with ball mount head, one black flag, 1 tri-grip reflector, 2 three by five foot collapsible diffusion panels , a wide assortment of colored light gels, and a bunch of various fastening devices like clamps and gaffer’s tape

Let’s break that down into list form real quick

  • 5D Mark II
  • 5D Mark III
  • Canon f/1.4 50mm
  • Canon f/2.8 24-70mm
  • Sigma f/2.8 70-200mm
  • Manfrotto tripod & Ball-mount Head
  • Canon 600EX-RT
  • 2x Canon 430 EX II
  • Vivtar 285
  • Paul C. Buff Einstein
  • Alienbees B800
  • Alienbees B400
  • 5x Aputure Wireless Triggers
  • Paul C. Buff CyberSync Commander
  • Paul C. Buff CyberSync Slave
  • 7 Foot Shoot-through Umbrella with removable Reflective/Softbox Backing
  • 36 Inch Octabox
  • 24 Inch Speed-lite Softbox
  • 22 Inch Beauty Dish
  • 2 Reflector Dishes
  • 2x Avenger C-Stand Complete
  • 4x 12 Foot Straight Stands
  • C-Stand mountable Black Flag
  • Tri-grip Reflector
  • 2x 3×5 Foot collapsible Reflector/Diffuser
  • Assorted Colored Lighting Gels
  • Assorted Clamps
  • Gaffer’s Tape

Tada! Hey, trust me, that’s not an unmanageable amount of stuff. The cameras, lenses, radio triggers and speed-lites all fit into one carry-on-sized camera bag, and the larger flash heads and tripod all fit into a 4×1 foot rolling light bag. The stands and light modifiers do add a cumbersome element to moving around when on on location, but with one assistant it’s more than manageable. 

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer in the Canton, Akron, Cleveland and NorthEastern Ohio Area. 

AuroraHDR 2018 by Skylum

Photography used to be inhabited by some stodgy old fuddy duds...

You know the kind, the photographer with a stogie hangin’ from their mouths, toiling over whatever it is they are toiling over. Old curmudgeons, believing themselves to be keepers of some crazy old mystical art form. I know you’ve seen a few of these types – I know of at least a few within my own town who still fit this stereotype.

The thing is, I don’t get why photographers, even of an older ilk, aren’t more flexible when it comes to new developments in technology. I am not even talking about the 20-something, “Film is wayyyyyy better than digital”, crowd – I’ll save my thoughts on that subject for later – but rather I am talking about the folks who truly believe that advancements in tech pose a great threat to the tried-and-true ways of their method.

For me, tech has always been something to revered. Sure, it’s dangerous to get into a game of keeping-up-with-the-Jones, and it’s also easy to fall into common pitfalls such as, “Oh, if I buy this brand new, more expensive, camera my photos will instantly look better!” But if you are careful, and pace yourself, you can find some truly amazing pieces of hardware and software that can really elevate your photo-game. 

One such piece of software is AuroraHDR 2018 by Skylum software. Not in the mood to read a long review? My one sentence synopsis for this software would be as follows; An HDR capable version of Lightroom without any of the catalog features. 

Actually, I could probably just end this review there – that’s just how accurate I feel that statement is. Of course there are some finer nuances between to two programs, but just boot up Aurora and you can see that it borrows heavily from Lightroom’s Develop module. 

Left: Lightroom – Right: AuroraHDR

Here you can see just how similar the two programs are. Well, it makes sense when you think about it. Lightroom didn’t invent the whole slider/adjust based interface, it just made it ubiquitous. Aurora is simply capitalizing on a design and layout we’re familiar with, and I am ok with that. So then, is Aurora a Lightroom clone under the hood as well? Definitely not. First off, it’s not replacing Lightroom for organizing your photos. AuroraHDR does none of that. In fact, the work flow for just opening and saving an image when using Aurora as a stand alone program is a little archaic. Luckily, Aurora integrates with Lightroom. So, instead, what you’ll be doing is opening the file in Lightroom, as always, and then exporting the file (or files – this is an HDR program after all) into Aurora. Once you are done merging and making adjustments you then can press the “apply” button, which actually saves this new file back into the Lightroom catalog – similar to how it works when you export a photo to edit in Photoshop and save it. 

HDR FOR ALL

So, then, again… the question is, why buy? Well, it’s cheap – like 99 bucks. And for that barely sub-100 price tag you actually get some amazing tools within Aurora. First off, I should mention that I am not a big HDR shooter, (which seems weird for this review, but it’s cool, trust me), so I don’t spend a lot of time with bracketed images. But the few occasions where I have taken the time to take HDR photos I have found it hard to get reliable results from the programs I’ve used previously. Photoshop and Lightroom’s built in HDR plug-ins are, well, laughable. And the other big programs, like Photomatix, feel like they were designed by the same engineers that programmed them. Aurora feels so much like Lightroom’s develop module, however, that it’s intuitive to get in there and make some easy, but very in-depth, changes with barely a nudge of the slider. And subtlety is important here – as a friend once pointed out, there’s a fine line in HDR between amazing and clown-vomit. Aurora’s sliders work wonders even when you’re only pushing it at 5 ticks out of 100. If you’re feeling brave and start pushing those sliders further you’ll be happy to know the potential is still there to make some cataract inducing contrast explosions. 

Before I get too long winded, my point here is this:

  • Step 1: Load in your brackets
  • Step 2: Use an interface full of tools and names you’re already familiar with
  • Step 3: Profit – Case in Point, see below image:

 

HDR – edited inside of a familiar interface

WORKING WITH SINGLE IMAGES

What if you’re like me and you’re focus isn’t HDR photography? Well, as it turns out, Aurora has some great uses there as well. The most obvious reason may not actually be the most obvious. HDR programs are built to pull details out of shadows and highlights. AuroraHDR isn’t a miracle worker, it can’t pull clouds out of a sky that’s been over exposed beyond redemption, but it can tease out details from shadows and highlights in a more reliable manner than Lightroom can. For whatever reason, Aurora’s shadow and highlight compression algorithms seem to work really well for me. Maybe it’s the way I shoot, or whatever, but I get great results from it. 

There has even been a few cases where I’ve gone back and re-developed older photos previously output with Lightroom. It’s hard for me to explain it, but I like to think of my photos in terms of stories and moods, and it’s almost like Lightroom and Aurora each have their own moods which they perform more optimally. Maybe it’s because of it’s nature as an HDR editing tool, but I find that Aurora is very good at helping me get the mood I am looking for in photos that were shot at sunset, or indoors in darker-than-normal conditions. 

When I edit my photos, I am very much an entire tool kinda guy. I use sliders (all of the sliders), curves, buttons, masks, gradients – everything, and Aurora let’s me explore my inner slider-pusher while yielding great results. It also renders these results fast, although there are times where you feel like the image looks awfully pixelated, only to find out that you aren’t just seeing things, and that the render has, in fact, decided to blockify your view. This is easy to fix, as scrolling in and out will refresh the image, but it’s still a weird occurrence which reminds you that you are using a 2nd tier piece of software. 

With that being said, I can promise you that I will be upgrading Aurora for the foreseeable future as I can’t imagine not having it in my arsenal of tools. Actually, I’ve rather fallen in love with this program and can’t wait to see what sort of new innovations may be in store for us!

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer in the Canton, Cleveland, Northeast Ohio area. 

Self Portrait with the Paul C. Buff Octabox

Self Portrait with the Paul C. Buff Octabox

A photographer’s cheapest model is, as they say, themselves. So I put my cheap model to work utilizing the new octabox I got from Paul C. Buff (detailed here).

List of gear:

  • 5d Mark II
  • Einstein Flash Head 
  • Octabox
  • C-Stand
  • Low-rent model (me)

Below are images of the final result of the shoot, as well as a diagram of the set up.

You can do some pretty awesome photos with just 1 light and a nice modifier!

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer who works in San Francisco, Canton, Cleveland and North East Ohio. 

Must Have New Photography Gear: Umbrellas, Octaboxes and Simple Reflectors

Must Have New Photography Gear: Umbrellas, Octaboxes and Simple Reflectors

I’ll admit it, I am a gear hound. It’s down right thrilling when the UPS guy rolls up with a box full of goodies. But perhaps even more exciting for me is the experimentation phase that ultimately comes when a new piece of equipment is dropped on my doorstep. Cameras, lights, modifiers, stands, doodads, and widgets – every new tool in your digital photography arsenal allows you to explore and expand your style, and finding out exactly how you’ll utilize these new apparatus is 90% of the fun (the other 10% obviously the joy of just opening the boxes and squealing with glee.)

Today’s New Gear: Digital Photography Light Modifiers

If you’ve read my blog in the past, then you know I am huge fan of Paul C. Buff and the gear he has engineered. His Einstein light and Cyber Commander wireless sync trigger play key roles in pretty much every commercial photo I take. But I also have a lot of other pieces from his catalog of products, and Paul C. Buff light modifiers comprise a large bulk of my inventory.

White PLM™ Umbrellas

My first product on this list is the 51″ White PLM Umbrella from PCB. I am a strong believer that you can do amazing photos with very little gear. One light, one reflector, one modifier, one camera; that’s a basic recipe for success, and if you don’t believe just look at what Annie Leibovitz has done with just such a setup.

What more gear does allow you, though, is more flexibility and control over your vision. My current stock of umbrellas is rather anemic. I have one 24 inch shoot-through white umbrella and one massive 7 foot reflective umbrella, that’s it.  My 7 foot umbrella is a work horse and goes with me everywhere, but honestly, it’s just overkill a lot of the time. It’s also hard to work with in tight spaces. Because of this I decided to buy the 51 inch shoot through from PCB and, at $30, it’s sort of a steal. 

 

Medium Foldable Octabox

Octaboxes are magic. They do all of the great things a traditional, rectangular softbox can do, only better. How so? At equivalent sizes, they give off a slightly wider spread of light. They also create amazing catch-lights in the eyes of your subjects. 

They also come with two drawbacks. First, they are usually more expensive than a same-sized softbox. Secondly, they are a pain in the ass to set up. A tension-rod based octabox can drive any normal person to the cliffs of insanity. That is, unless, you spend a little more money and get a foldable octabox! And that’s just what I did. I already had an octabox in the same size range, but the time and effort needed to get it ready meant it spent a few opportune moments in it’s bag rather than on the end of a light stand – that’s a bad thing. Now I am looking forward to using this new foldable version in situations where I may have defaulted to a regular softbox out of the necessity of time and sanity. 

 

7 inch Standard Reflector

Just as the name indicates, this is a pretty standard piece of light modifying gear. Just how standard? Well, one of these reflectors come with every Alien Bees flash head you buy, so it’s pretty ubiquitous with Paul C. Buff gear. However, my Einstein did not come with one. So, where I have one of these for each of my Alien Bees, my Einstein sits awkwardly bare of a reflector and, when it comes to basic light control, nothing quite does the job of blasting light in a particular direction better than a 7-inch reflector!

It’s pretty obvious from my work that how I work with light is more important than which camera I am using. The camera itself is just a tool to capture the information that’s put in front of it. It’s the job of your light, and the tools that shape and modify it, to make that information something that’s intriguing to the person looking at it.

Benjamin Lehman is a professional, commercial photographer who works in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Canton, Cleveland and North East Ohio. 

How-To Photography: Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait – Warrior Beat

How-To Photography: Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait – Warrior Beat

Environmental Portraiture

Also known as, “A face in a place”, is by far my favorite type of picture I am asked to take. The reasons are varied; I like dealing with interesting people, I enjoy traveling to new and different locations, and most importantly I like the opportunity to tell a story with my photos. 

As photographers, we usually go into a new project with a mental check-list, or to-do list, of what we want to accomplish. With environmental portraiture, the most important ‘to-do’ is the part regarding the story telling aspect of the photo I am about to take. The idea here is simple: Take a photo that tells the viewer something important about the subject. Nat Geo photographers are gods at doing this. Annie Leibovitz, someone I deeply admire, is another artist who just knocks her photos out of the story-telling-park every time. 

I used to think the story telling aspect would be hard part of the process, and it can be in some very special circumstances. However, with just a little practical self-control (i.e., just keepin’ it simple) you can turn the story telling phase into something that can happen quickly, easily, and enjoyably.

For my example here, I am going to use the guys over at Warrior Beat as my example. Warrior Beat is a non-profit organization that provides professionally facilitated drum circles to US Military Veterans who are suffering from either mental or physical disabilities. They do a lot of great work and are one of the few for-veteran organizations who use art in healing. (Disclaimer: I not only help and work with the boys and girls at Warrior Beat, but I also designed their logo and act as a co-founder.)

Most of the members of Warrior Beat are veterans themselves, having served over seas, fought in battles, and returned home with scars of their own. They are also an organization who’s public profile is rocketing faster than they expected due to the good, and unique, work that they do. 

When the time came that they needed some updated member photos, the challenge was set; how do we take portraits that will give viewers, (who may also be potential donors to their charity), an at-a-glance idea of who they are and what their message is?

The first step in environmental portraiture is the story.

Ok, so putting that to use here’s what we know about Warrior Beat’s story:

  • US military veteran based service
  • Many Warrior Beat members also have a military background
  • They use drums in a therapeutic setting

With these three simple, but important facts we can start to paint a picture for our photos. We want our story to hit as many of these bullet-points as possible. 

Next Step: Location

The next most important part of an environmental portrait? The environment, of course! So, what better place than a military museum? The MAPS Air Museum to be precise. 

A quick note on securing locations

A lot of locations will be happy to donate their time to worthy causes. A military-based museum will more than likely donate their space to you for photos when your subjects are also military vets. This applies to a lot of locations and situations. To repay the favor, offer to send them copies of the photos for use in their own social media, or print publication usage. Be sure to give them a social media thanks (with a link!). Those types of gestures go a long way into building a rapport with groups who may seek out your services later once they see how awesome your photos are!

We walked around the museum for about 20 minutes, trying to find a good location, and quickly realized our best bet was a Cobra helicopter sitting in front of a 2 story US flag. The Cobra helicopter was used in multiple branches of US military services, and the flag itself was just too good to pass up. It totally reads as military, as patriotic, as veteran; right off the bat we can check off two items on our story telling list.

The last item on our check list, tying our subjects in with their facilitated  drumming service to veterans, would be as simple as just having the Warrior Beat CEO hold up a drum for his portrait. 

Photography Gear and Setup

For my gear I used the following:

The good news was, I didn’t have to light the ginormous flag. There was a bank of windows behind it that would take care of that issue for me. But, what that does mean is that, I now have to light my subjects to work with what’s coming through the windows. 

Luckily, with just 3 flashes and some basic know-how on lighting ratios, I was able to dial it in. Specifically, I used the Einstein and beauty dish as my main light for my subjects. I was shooting slight up at my subjects to give them a little more gravitas and presence within the photo frame. This meant I was able to bring the light down a little more than usual to help keep shadows to a minimum. I didn’t want to remove all the shadows, however, since I felt a little sharpness in the photos would help translate the perception that these guys have seen some sh*t, which they have, and have been changed by it, which they also have.

The second light, an alien bees b800, inside of a 4 foot strip light, acted both as a slight fill light as well as kicker light for the helicopter. I needed to brighten up the details of the Cobra, so I just turned the light little by little until I was able to get just the right ratio of light spilling between the copter and my subject.

The last light was a small Vivitar 285HV on the ground near me that just barely threw a little extra oomph at my subjects. Again, I wasn’t trying to eradicate the shadow, but I did want to fill in a little detail in the darker spots, like under their chins, to help define their faces a little better. 

I used my 70-200mm lens so I could compress the distances between subject and background. The idea here is to give my subject a greater sense of scale so he can compete better between the larger helicopter and flag in the background. 

Once the lighting is all dialed, (remember, we’re exposing for the natural light that’s coming in and hitting the flag), it’s time to take some photos and, hopefully, capture a story!

In conclusion

Crafting a story doesn’t have to be the hard part of environmental portraiture. Instead, use some very basic ques from your subject to help guide the narrative. Sometimes you need to go over board and spend a good deal of man-hours and money to handcraft the perfect story telling photo, but other times you can rely on more modest techniques to conquer the same problem.

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer who works in the San Francisco, California, Canton, and North East Ohio areas. 

 

Me, on the floor. Here you can see how I’ve set up my lights, and my subject, in relation to the background. 

The final frame of our story telling, environmental portraiture. 

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