Saturday, July 26, 2008

My New Identity is Here...

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It's been coming for a while and now I see it's the only way I can go. I've no time to think, little time to compose, and the situation is never going to change. It's time dated. Short lived. Measured in minutes - not hours. Nothing can be repeated. Nobody waits for you. You work with what you have and must always be ready - until it's over.

What kind of situation is this?! Job interview? Tax audit? Oh, no - I'm talking about wedding photography!

Every location is new. Every customer is different. Every group of people is unpredictable. All of this is designed to test your preparedness and nerves, not to mention your manners.

Being in control of yourself is the key to success. The ceremony is predictable - cover every minute, literally. Shoot until people start looking at you funny. The family/friends group shots are cut and dried - you're in charge and they will turn out fine. But catching people in their most natural state and making good images of them can be two different things. (She's ugly. He doesn't smile. Will someone check their pulse, please?)

So, you put on the charm and coax them into a romantic mood with promises of fabulous photos for their efforts. If they believe you, there's a chance you'll get some shots even you will like. If not, they can't say you didn't try. Usually, something good happens and if you apply one of the aforementioned dictums, you will have a decent shot of even the worst subjects.

Are they all like that? Not at all. When the mood is festive, the location is engaging, and people are ready for the event, it can be a fantastic experience. But the rules don't change and you gotta come home with the goods. So, shooting voraciously is de rigeur. Don't stop and enjoy the moment - shoot it!

But more truly is better - a more picturesque location begs for creative coverage. Well dressed people are portrait practice potential. Attractive rooms become interior design challenges to show off the wedding decor. Late afternoon sun, the swimming pool, the dinner tent - each adds extra dimensions to what you can record - so do it quickly! Time is running out! Light is fading - people are moving. You are the only constant in this human drama. You're not there for the same reason they are. They will want to see this day again - and that's why they hired you.

Taking advantage of creative timeframes is a luxury. Most couples don't spend all day getting married like they use to. You get 3-5 hours to perform your miracles of modern photography and what you can cram in that space in time is all you get to work with. So revel in the opportunities to shoot in a garden after the ceremony and before the reception takes control of your time. Build in a half hour at a guaranteed location that will deliver cool personal images. You'll make a bigger fee, sure, but you'll feel even better for the images you gained.

All this is wrapped up in wedding photography - and it is a blast. You perspire. You improvise. You cajole the kids and compliment the bride's mother. All to get that elusive image that turns you on. Your images will tell the tale. You are a wedding photographer!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lessons Learned in Lightroom

Here's a great example of the recovery potential in RAW images with Lightroom's powerful Develop tools. This image was heavily overexposed, especially in the bright area representing his shirt. Had this image been shot as a JPG, it would be unrecoverable. Not so with RAW! What a transformation! Exposure, saturation and detail is all there...

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Original RAW

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Recovered RAW

Moral of the Story During camera exposure, push that histogram as far to the right as possible and don't delete those blown files until you've checked them out in LR - even a couple of stops of overexposure can be corrected on many shots.

PS I've also made it a practice to move the Recovery and Blacks sliders to adjust exposure - then adjust Fill if needed. With big corrections, the Exposure slider can tend to reduce saturation and contrast and complicate the process. Also, the Auto button often adds excessive Black values in the shadows portion of the histogram. This worries me as I prep for printmaking, so I manually adjust Black levels to just touch the left side of the histogram to retain maximum detail in dark areas.

Monday, July 21, 2008

High ISO and FP Flash Fun

When you need high shutter speeds to capture action in early evening situations, nothing impresses more than theD300's higher ISO's and FP flash. Shot a few images at a pool party tonight while experimenting with this approach - here's a couple keepers with some added manipulation in Adobe Lightroom.

DSLR D300 w/ 16-85/3.5-5.6 VRII
Flash SB-800 Speedlight
ISO's 1800 + 6400

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6400 ISO @ 1/1000 f5.6 w/ +100 Sharpening (Amount, Radius, Detail), +100 Luminance NR

Produced a very cool grainy effect and revealed decent image detail...

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1800 ISO @ 1/1000 f5 w/ +100 Blacks, +100 Clarity, -100 Vibrance,

High contrast and color shift adds a different look...

The D300 and SB-800 work beautifully together in creating images from 1800 to 6400 ISO's - add FP flash and you have a powerful nighttime image machine at close quarters.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Wedding Shooter

You know how some people want your exact settings to replicate when they try something? I used to get irritated by that, but this time it might be useful. My familiarity with the Nikon D300 is growing, and combining my experience with the SB-800 Speedlight, Auto ISO, D-Lighting and other Nikon technologies is making this business a lot more productive - and fun.

On this three-hour assignment, I shot 703 RAW images at an outdoor wedding in sunny 96-degree weather. Here's what I used and how I did it:

Location Outdoors (backyard wedding)
Lighting Direct sun > open shade > late afternoon cross lighting

DSLR D300 w/ MB-D10 Grip
Lens 16-85/3.5-5.6 AF-S VRII
S Mode set to 1/250th
AF Mode AF-S and AF-C (as needed)
Apertures varied from f5.6 - f6.3 (with flash)
Auto ISO activated (never left base ISO with SB-800 in use)
D-Lighting Normal level
NR Off
Matrix Metering used in shaded areas (with no sky in the frame)
Spot Metering for bright and mixed lighting scenes
SB-800 iTTL and set as fill on D300

Initially set to ISO 200, I later moved the base ISO to 400 to get a smaller aperture, but that was about it. Shot in S mode with the shutter pegged at 1/250th with fill flash selected and the SB-800 picked the apertures - between 5.6 and 6.3 for the most part, but I didn't really pay any attention since the 16-85 has already proven to me that it can and critical even shoot wide open very well. Made a few adjustments along the way to soften the fill flash, etc. but generally kept an eye on the histograms and worked toward an ideal exposure for each frame.

I'm more impressed with the D300/SB-800 combi than the last time I did a wedding - mainly cuz I know more of what I'm doing! Used to freak a little when shooting in direct sunlight, but now I just don't worry about it. I find the right level of fill (via the histograms mostly) and spent very little time dealing with the camera at all - just shot, chimped and went back to shooting. Even as late afternoon cross lighting began to appear, I did nothing else to control exposure - the D300 and SB-800 did just fine on their own.

AF was sufficiently quick - quicker really in AF-C cuz it doesn't have to confirm focus before firing. In 96-degree weather, I discovered the NiMH batts get incredibly hot when I do my changeout after the ceremony. They performed beautifully, though, with frequent bursts at close range and a keeper image each time. A second set of NiMH's carries me through the reception with no problems. The MB-D10 battery power never really dipped with no power load on the body but basic shooting functions - the vertical release was a welcome addition.

I'll adjust final exposure, contrast and saturation in Lightroom where the fabulous Synch feature allows for rapid processing of these adjustments to every image group, as well as creative effects along the way for some variety.

All in all, a much more comfortable experience than ever. The setting left a lot to be desired - open yard with little or no gardens and trees. Background mountain scenery was awesome but not terribly useable where we were shooting. Still, a technically successful shoot and one that left me looking forward to the next one with greater confidence and appreciation for all things Nikon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Auto ISO: Pro's Secret or Fool's Errand?

Regarded by some as an amateur contrivance, Auto ISO is truly one of the most powerful tools available on your DSLR. Combined with our knowledge of handling noise successfully, having automated ISO as part of your shooting strategy is a mark of maturity among knowledgeable shooters. How so?

Situation You're covering an outdoor event on a sunny day (or a high contrast stage lighting environment) where lighting is different everywhere you turn. The dynamic range of the scenes is often far beyond our sensors ability to record easily. We need need intuitive camera control!

Problem We've got our favorite mode in place - A, S , P or even Manual. Spot metering is isolating our subject for accurate exposures. AF is in Continuous Mode with Tracking Lock-on activated. iTTL flash is at the ready to add fill and, eventually, become our main light source. Seems like we're in control, but as the lighting changes and the day draws on bringing afternoon shadows... keeping an accurate exposure is a dizzying accomplishment. Then, as light fades, the flash ceases to expose adequately, so we raise the ISO manually. Later, we resort to exposure compensation dialing. Then flash compensation dialing. Shutter speeds slow and apertures widen - creating mental fatigue which is robbing us of enthusiasm and creativity. What to do?

Solution Enter Auto ISO - champion of automated camera control! With one swift switch, we have continuously automated adjustment of all the aforementioned areas. Set to run from a 1/8th shutter speed and up to the top ISO available, our camera will now follow our lead obediently. Watch it work...

Set up in Program, A, or S mode, as light increases Auto ISO lowers sensor speeds, shutter speeds increase and flash output fills automatically. As light dims, Program mode will to respect our need to use handheld settings, while A and S modes adjust their respective variables to suit the situation. In the background, ISO moves up or down to maintain these desired camera operations.

In A or S mode, we can hold onto our desired f-stop or shutter speed as ISO moves around for us - but this is a bit less flexible in realtime use as you push ISO's up more quickly at f8 or a 1/250th shutter speed. Good lenses shoot well more side open and VR optics give us easy handheld capability in the 1/25th range - this will really extend Auto ISO's contribution.

Ingeniously, as light diminishes, Auto ISO coordinates usable settings with Nikon's superb iTTL flash adding more output to illuminate the scene as needed - going from fill to main when the need arises. Recycle times will be affected more by our default f-stop or shutter speed, so haggle out a workable combination of shooting at f4.5 or 1/25th and Auto ISO will take up the slack nicely.

For the most part the camera is now self-running - very cool. The other side of Auto ISO is proficient postprocessing. Top end DSLR's (D2x, D200, D300, D3) will handle noise fairly almost to their ISO limits. Midrange DSLR shooters (D40, D40x, D50, D70, D60, D80) will need to avoids excessively high ISO's to keep images from breaking up on the computer - set your ISO limit to around 1600 to be safe.

With Auto ISO, we can extend the range of useful operation in any situation until we either run out of recordable ambient light or available flash power. I prefer to use S mode to maintain handheld shutter speeds during a wedding or even casual snapshooting. you can create your own strategy based on shooting preferences you practiced over the years. Any way you do it, Auto ISO givs you greater control of fast moving, action-packed shooting... use it!

Monday, July 14, 2008

D300 Noise - What's All the Commotion About?

The D300 sensor is markedly better at high ISO's than the D200, and even the D2x. After reading up on some pictorialized reviews and comparisons, I found one reviewer's suggestion worth considering - turn Hi ISO NR Reduction to Low or Off. Huh? Makes sense actually. All that NR does is smear detail, so it'd be worth it to try to go without before stirring the pot, eh? I decided to give it another chance in my routine shooting technique... how so?

Let's start by repeating once again that underexposure is a major faux pas, and that it introduces noise immediately in underexposed (I prefer to call them unexposed) areas. Routinely overexposing at 1/3 of a stop is the right way to go with plenty of recoverable highlight data available in today's RAW files. Well-lit subjects (sports, birds, etc.) in particular won't suffer from noise like those dimly lit artistic shots taken at twilight. So use of higher ISO's shouldn't be an issue until there isn't enough light - ambient or artificial. (Sports shooters have been going this route for a long time, and with the advent of the D3 are pushing this envelope even further!)

Tests done on the D300 against its competitors reveal a tremendous high ISO performance in properly exposed images with half the noise of Nikon's previous top DX models. Do your own tests to discover this advancement - preferably with flash for maximum color saturation and proper contrast levels.

My initial test results below are RAW images taken with my new 16-85/3.5-5.6 VR Nikkor and the D300's built-in flash for a full histogram of data. The D300 was set with NR Off and images were saved as 800-pixel JPGs at the 100% Quality setting. (These are 350k+ images, so download 'em and take a closer look on your own screen.)

First, an unedited 200 ISO image...

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200 ISO

Then, unedited 800/1600 ISO images and their counterparts with 100% Luminance NR applied in Lightroom to fully impact the image for noise reduction.

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800 ISO

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800 ISO w/ 100% Luminance NR

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1600 ISO

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1600 ISO w/ 100% Luminance NR

On my monitor, even at 1600 ISO, image quality is simply superb - excellent tonal range and fine detail is very well maintained. For any use other than stock photo submissions or extreme enlargement, you will get excellent results from 8X10 size prints to litho reproduction in brochures and magazines at the 800 and 1600 ISO settings.

Well, there you have it - no need to make a lot of noise over the D300. It is the 'quietest' DX camera available and designed to handle high ISO's very smoothly. Next, we'll be exploring the advantages of the Auto ISO feature for the most flexible shooting technique ever developed by Nikon. Stay tuned...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

When Does 3/4" Equal Two Feet?

When you drop a DL650 V-Strom's suspension 3/4" and finally get both feet on the ground - that's when. I've tipped my Wee over several times and was getting pretty tired of the embarrassment and tipsy slow speed handling. For this modification, we need what are called lowering links...

Lowering links (aka dogbones) change up the geometry of the rear wheel via the pivoting shock mount arm that connects the rear monoshock to the frame. I know, it doesn't make sense to read this so just take a look under your bike and you'll see what's involved. The monoshock is attached to a alloy casting that articulates the monoshock while pivoting on the frame itself. Two flat metal 'dogbones' determine the overall height of the ride based on their overall length. Lengthening the links shortens the frame height, which lowers the bike. It's really just that simple. More than a 3/4" lowering will significantly change this bike's handling and road clearances, so make sure you need more drop before you start messin' around with this important aspect on your V-Strom. This is strictly an at-your-own-risk modification for mechanically-inclined bike owners, so if something isn't clear to you - don't do it!

Didn't know if the cheaper aluminum lowering links that sell for $17 on eBay would be stout enough to replace the steel OEM parts, so I went for a Kevin Baker's nicely finished steel lowering links ($44 shipped) and won't have to worry about it. Murph's mailed 'em out ASAP and they were waiting for me when I returned from a 10-day work week in Missouri.

Rear Suspension Links
Installation is pretty simple - remove two nut (17mm) and bolt (14mm) assemblies and changeout OEM dogbones with the KB's. You will need to create 5-6" of swingarm lift to get the bottom bolt on the KB dogbone started in the shock arm - I employed a square-edged shovel under the limp rear tire to leverage the swingarm up. Wasn't the swiftest approach but in a one-man situation it did the trick. A block and 2X4 would be the simplest way to do it but you'll figure something out when you get to that point. Regreasing the shock arm bearings and putting some blue removable LockTight on the link mounting nuts are two more smart details in this part changeout. Other than that it's a cakewalk...

Front Fork
To complement the geometry change in the rear suspension, a drop of the tripletree in the front forks is needed. This is even easier - just loosen the three 10mm bolts on each side and retighten finger tight. Take a rubber hammer and firmly strike the middle portion of the handlebars to slowly move the top tripletree downward. Establish a visual starting point of the shock tubes and stop when you get to within 5/8"-3/4" of the shock tube showing above the tripletree. DO NOT exceed 3/4" or you risk slamming the top of the shock tube into the lower tripletree!! Take your time, hammer and measure frequently, and it'll go very smoothly. Tighten all the 10mm bolts up as tight as you can get them by hand.

So, what's it like to ride 3/4" lower on a Wee? Awesome! At 5'10" with a 32" inseam, I can easily prop this beast up at a redlight now for safer braking to a standstill and takeoffs in traffic. With the CG (center of gravity) closer to the ground, there's no more tipsy balancing act on uneven surfaces. No more nervous slow speed maneuvers and turnarounds. Clearance is more than adequate for the street and the center stand and kickstand continue to operate just fine too - a greater drop than this will necessitate mods that you won't want to have to make.

On the road, the Wee is starting to handle more like a sportbike! Not quite an SV clone, of course, but it's a much more manageable adventure touring setup than what came out of the factory.