Sticking close to home for garden photography 

 

 

Another week has seen me safely sticking close to home watching the spring growth.

The nights haven’t been as cold and this past week has been a mixture of bright sunny warmth and cool rainy overcast days. Just what one should expect of the end May’s spring weather.

This morning I got up to a very wet yard. I didn’t hear the rain last night, but it looked like it rained a lot and the wind hadn’t picked up enough to dry the plants.

Ha, that meant another good day for photography. I got my camera with a 200mm macro lens, my Benbo tripod, fastened a flash on a light stand, pulled on my rubber boots, jacket and a hat and went out to photograph wet plants in my spring garden.

I knew I would need to work fast because there was a slight breeze. I don’t mind getting rained on, but a wind makes it hard to get sharp photos.

I would choose I flower, place the flash and then get my camera. On this morning I didn’t bother with my black backdrop, it would just get wet. I was planning on shooting with a wide aperture so the background would be soft anyway. I like to darken the ambient light when I use a flash and I could keep the wide aperture and balance the light by increasing my shutterspeed.

I have written before that I control the ambient light by using high-speed sync.

HSS means I can use very high shutterspeeds and not be limited to the low default shutter/flash sync of 1/250th second.   The higher shutterspeed would also make it easier to photograph the flowers that might move slightly from the because of the morning’s breeze.

The last time I ventured into the garden to take pictures there was very little growth, but this past week has really changed things. Of course everything is green and there are flowers, but the most noticeable thing is the Lilacs. The Lilacs are in full bloom and have filled in along the path from my car to my door and what I like best is how the whole front of my yard is now a solid wall of purple and white.
I remember 20 plus years ago planting Lilacs along the fence with my wife and wishing they would grow fast. We looked forward to being able to sit on our deck without being seen from the road. It took years because there isn’t a lot of water available and the summers are dry so growth is slow. As I looked around the yard for small subjects to photograph I thought about how I now have the seclusion I yearned for back then.

I ignored plants that didn’t have water droplets and focused tightly so I would have a soft background with limited depth of field. I wasn’t making a record of the plants I have. Identifying a type flower has never been my interest. My wife liked flowers and could name every plant, but I just care about the colour, texture or shape and the photographs I can make.

An overcast day with a bit of rain is excellent for flower photos. The colours are stronger, there are no harsh reflections and with a flash as the key light instead of the sun one can be very creative. I know that walking through a field on a sunny day is so much fun, but when it comes to photographing that same field I prefer an overcast and sometimes rain.

After all its really about the photography and as American photographer Annie Leibovitz once said, “The camera makes you forget you’re there. It’s not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much.”

Photographing a spring garden     

Finally…finally the spring warmth has crept in and we are getting the rain, sun, rain kind of days that are usual this time of year.

I think the plants in my garden that were holding back because of the cold days and nights last week will be exploding in bloom in no time.  I knew I would miss the beginning growth if I hesitated.

I sent a text to my friend Jo inviting her to join me and she showed up a few hours later ready to photograph the garden with me.

In my article last week I wrote, “why not photograph the flowers just as one would do a portrait.” So for our photos I got out two small 2’x2’ backdrops that Jo and I could place behind some of the flowers. Remember that I wrote that I used a small backdrop for flowers and other small items that is made of black velvet material attached to sharpened dowels that easily poke into the ground.

This time I mounted one wireless flash on a light stand, but decided not to use an umbrella. We took turns moving the flash for each other.

Jo shot with my 70-180mm AF macro and I used my 200mm Manual macro.

I also used the uniquely flexible Benbo tripod I wrote about last week. There was a slight intermittent breeze that was possible for Jo to overcome with her AF lens, but my manual lens had to have support, so the tripod was a must for me.

We were fortunate that the day was overcast. That made it easy to use a wide aperture to soften the background while still being able to underexpose the ambient light.

As I wrote last week, “The exposure was made exactly the same way I would have made it if photographing a person in an outdoor studio. Slightly underexpose the ambient light, position the flash for the best light direction, and continue to make tests until I got lighting that would flatter my subject.”

We wandered the garden looking for those flowers and plants that are early blooming and those that are just showing buds at the end of their branches.

For me, photographing my garden is a time consuming process that includes a tripod, an off-camera flash, a backdrop and a lot of walking around to find the right shape in the right location.

I met a biologist that decided to take up photography. He mostly used natural light and occasionally one of those inexpensive constant light kits. He would cut the plant that he wanted to photograph and use a clamp to position it. For me the process of photographing a flower usually includes its life cycle from the cool days of early spring to snowy winter days. So plant clippers, clamps and lights that plug into an electric outlet don’t work for me at all. I photographed the garden a few days ago. There has been rain and warm sun since then and I think it’ll rain again tomorrow. That mean I can expect may garden to have gone through a transition and photographing it will be a new experience. Spring, summer, fall and winter. It always is.

I will admit that I am not a gardener. I rarely remove weeds unless the get in the way of something I am doing. I don’t go through plant catalogues in the spring and can’t begin to name the plants that grow in my garden. But I do like to photograph those things that grow or just reside in my yard. My wife used to complain that I enjoyed the photography more than her garden. I disagreed. I like the garden because I like to photograph it.

Photographing the garden is calming and can be creative for those that take the time. That said here is a quote by Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson that I have used before.

In his book, “Photography and the Art of Seeing” he wrote, “ Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, you intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

Lighting flowers with off-camera flash   

I intended to spend some time this week photographing the spring garden.

Last week I was sure that the days and nights would warm and I would have lots of colour to point my camera at. However, as with all the other surprising changes this year has brought the weather turned cold and although there is a lot of green in my yard there isn’t much else. With that I thought I’d repost this article I wrote in April 2014.

“The snow has finally, and at last, left the north side of our house. It’s barely been gone two weeks; nevertheless, that means two weeks of new growth in my wife’s garden.

My wife mentioned the crocuses were coming up everywhere I thought I’d check to see if there were any left after a weekend visit with our two granddaughters who like to pick flowers. As it turned out the girls hadn’t got them all and there were many more coming up everywhere. So I decided I should select a couple plants to photograph before the bloom was over.

I had been making notes in preparation for a workshop on using flash outdoors that I planned on leading the May.

I thought why not photograph the flowers just as I would do a portrait of a person. I got out a small 2’x2’ backdrop and placed it behind some of the flowers. That small backdrop, especially constructed for flowers and other small items, is made of black velvet material attached to sharpened dowels that easily poke into the ground.

I mounted two wireless flashes on light stands, and put a 40-inch umbrella on one placed shoulder height to my right and a 30-inch on the other positioned low to the ground on the left.

Needing to shoot low, I used my favourite garden tripod, the uniquely flexible Benbo. The Benbo tripod allows each leg to be independently positioned, and instead of a vertical center column configuration that most tripods have, the Benbo has a column that fits off center and when the legs, which go in almost any direction, are splayed out flat, the camera can be positioned just off the ground.

I mounted my 200mm macro lens on my camera. That focal length let me situate the camera several feet away from the crocuses so I wouldn’t have to put an end to the new growth coming up everywhere in my wife’s garden while still letting me have a close focus.

The exposure was made exactly the same way I would have made it if photographing a person in an outdoor studio. Slightly underexpose the ambient light, reposition the flashes for the best light direction, and continue to make tests until I got lighting that would flatter my subject.

Lighting a subject with off-camera flash is fun, and putting up a backdrop ensures that it is even more so. It doesn’t matter who or what the subject is because I like to use a flash.

For me portraiture is all about adding light. It was also really nice to spend some time outdoors in the garden and see it coming to life in the spring.

 

 

 

Another morning photographing the garden in March  

Early in the morning I got a text message from my friend Jo that said, “Good morning, it’s snowing down here.” I told her it was up at my place too with big flakes.

Her reply was, “ if I come up when its light can I borrow your macro lens? I want to take some pictures of the snow in the garden”

I said of course, and an hour later when Jo and her daughter showed up it had stopped snowing but there was still some left on the plants.

I got my 70-180mm macro lens out, mounted a flash on a light stand, and gave her my TTL flash trigger so she could use the same High Speed Sync technique I wrote about in my last article. We then set up a video game for her daughter because she said it was “to cold for me” and went out in the snowy morning looking for some interesting subjects for Jo to photograph.

The sky had cleared up and the snow was melting fast.

Whenever Jo found something to photograph I would position the flash to one side. After the first few tests we knew how far away I needed to locate the flash so as not to under or over expose her subjects. Then as the day got brighter all she had to do was decide how bright she wanted the background and increase or decrease the shutterspeed to achieve it.

I had my camera just in case, but Jo had some good ideas and I enjoyed being the “lighting guy” moving the flash around to see what kind of effect she could get so I didn’t bother using it.

The snow was deep and more than once we filled our boots. However, there was lots to photograph and although we both complained we didn’t really care. And for me it is always interesting to watch how and what another photographer does in a location that I have photographed.

I just remembered that I wrote about Jo and I photographing the March garden snow a couple years ago and at that time I said, “I know there are many photographers that only take pictures of plants when they are in bloom and prefer colourful representations. However, spring, summer, fall, winter, snow, rain, sunny, or overcast, my garden is filled with ever changing subjects that always offer something new.”

My advise to photographers was then and still is, if they wait for inspiring weather before that next garden safari they are missing a good opportunity. There’s always something to photograph no matter the weather or the season, just get up close and look for the small stuff.

Event Photography   

When some photographer asks me my thoughts about photographing an event that comes with lots of people I tell them that, for me, the most important three things that make successful photos come with the letters: P.P & F.

The capital letters PPF stand for, have ‘Patience”, always “Pay Attention” and absolutely use a “Flash”.

These days everyone has a camera in his or her pocket.

When anything happens they quickly grab their phone and awkwardly start recording. That’s great and I am so pleased that kind of technology is readily available for everyone. However, for those that want photographs large enough to make the rare print, or sharp enough to withstand the inexpensive material that a newspaper is printed on, or even the quality of most in-house magazines, the tiny sensors of phone will be inadequate.

That’s when the call comes from knowledgeable organizers for those photographers I will call “event photographers” who are willing to spend long hours photographing that special occasion.

My PPF begins with “Patience”. Many untested photographers whose experience is family gatherings or short weddings may be willing, but are unaware that it’s their job to photograph anything their client deems important. Most of the time that means one or two photos of a speaker or award recipients or the recognition of that person of organizational importance.

The event photographer’s job is to patiently stand there at-the-ready, without blocking the audience’s view and get that picture.

“Paying attention” doesn’t need much description, because it’s simple. The photographer is always “Patiently Paying Attention” to everything that happens. Even if that means standing back out of the way poised to rush up for that important moment. So I’ll just leave it there.

Lastly, I have to get to the equipment part.

Most of today’s modern cameras are capable of high ISO. Basically, ISO means that the camera’s sensor sensitivity can be set to make exposures in very low light and for many cameras that low light capability is part of the manufacturers selling point.

What the manufactures don’t discuss is the quality of light. Sure the image can be made bright enough to make out someone way up on a stage, but the light always comes from overhead. And that light never balanced to what most of us consider as pleasant skin tones. The usually dim yellow or purplish overhead meeting hall or gymnasium light makes unflattering shadows everywhere.

Having a flash, no not the tiny little thing that pops up when the light is low. But a flash that one connects on DSLR camera’s hotshoe.

With a modern dedicated flash it doesn’t matter what camera mode is selected the flash will always release a properly programed amount of light. Light that comes from the cameras and is in front of the subject, illuminating the face of everyone in that location. Light that dissolves the shadows. (Except for those directly behind someone or something) And finally light that is much more flattering than the off-coloured lights attached to the ceiling.

My mother used to tell me that “anything worth doing is worth doing right”.

Being more interested in some guest than the list of speakers, or missing that crucial shot because it’s uncomfortable (or embarrassing) to run across the hall to catch that important moment, or being to lazy to first learn how the flash works, or worse not even bothering to use one, is not doing something that should be “worth doing right”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographing dogs and using flash outdoors.  

When my friend Jo McAvany told me she wanted to do something the combined her love of photography and love of large breed dogs I was intrigued. She said she was planning to make a photograph book of big dogs that live in the Kamloops area.

Jo intends to spend the next year photographing the dogs in all seasons and at different locations throughout the year.

For the past two years that I have known her I’ve been pushing her to use lighting when photographing people indoors and out. She began by attending my lighting workshops and eventually became my ever-helpful teaching partner.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she said. “Will you help me with the lighting on my project”. I readily said I would.

Flash technology made quite a leap from the manual settings we once used to when Nikon added TTL in the early 1980s. That was when I sold all my Pentax and Canon equipment and “jumped” to Nikon. (I am pretty sure all modern cameras have TTL flash capability)

Flash took another large step when digital cameras became the norm. TTL was already almost foolproof and digital technology offered added control. Then it again matured and “High-speed Sync” was introduced and mastery over light in any environment and condition became easy.

Manufacturers began offering portable wireless units that, unlike the dedicated speedlights a photographer usually purchases with their camera, are much like those powerful units used in serious studios.

For readers that aren’t familiar with flash, High-speed sync means a photographer is no longer limited to the normal 1/200th or 1/250th second flash sync most speedlights use. HSS allows a sync speed up to 1/8000 of a second.

When I teach workshops on Flash I tell participants that the Shutter controls the ambient light and the Aperture controls the flash power. And remind them that increasing the shutterspeed allows us to widen the aperture.

When Jo walked out in the white, painfully reflective snow on a bright cloudless day to photograph those dogs this past week the contrast between the shadows and highlights were enough to ruin the pictures. However, I added flash and moved around to change the direction of the light fell on her subject. All she had to do was reduce the ambient light by increasing her shutterspeed and change the flash brightness by stopping down or opening up her aperture. Our goal was to balance the light on the dogs as evenly as possible without Jo’s final image showing that a flash was even employed.

Jo worked with the owners to pose the dogs. She’s very precise when it comes to how she wants them to be for the photograph. My job was to pay attention to the flash-to-subject distance and keep checking to make sure the light wasn’t to bright or to dark.

Confining oneself to only natural light means there will be elements beyond control. Natural light limits when and where one can shoot during the day. With the sun high in the sky at noon, there will either be a backlit silhouette, or the bright light will blind the subject and create black shadows. And if it starts snowing or raining, there usually won’t be enough light to shoot indoors.

Flash gives a photographer 100% control over the lighting. Whether completely doing away with the ambient light in the studio or adding flash with natural light outdoors, the photographer is in charge and can get the light to look exactly the way he or she wants it at any time of day.

The first Flash-How-To workshop of 2019    

I had planned to write about photography in the snow. After all it’s January here in western Canada and it should be snowing.

There isn’t much snow in my neighbourhood and it isn’t that cold out. So instead I’ll write about what I did on my first weekend on the New Year.

I decided that a good way to begin another year of photography would be to host a Flash (speedlight) workshop to help those photographers that are planning to photograph people in 2019.

While I was preparing for the class I found an article by California based photographer Jason Shelton tilled, “5 Reasons to Use Flash”. He continued, “Flashes are more than just Fill….Reason 1: Flash is Awesome. Reason 2: Flash is Awesome. Reasons 3, 4 and 5: Flash is Awesome.” Although I absolutely agree with Mr. Shelton, I needed a bit more to tell the photographers in attendance than that.

So many of today’s modern photographers have become lazy with the amazing camera technology we have. Without a thought about controlling the light, it’s direction, or the light’s quality. They point their cameras and hope their cameras will make good pictures.

The one-day session I lead was about speed lights (hot shoe type flashes) and how to use them on and off-camera.

This class filled up so quickly that I almost forgot how hard it is to convince photographers that a flash isn’t only for darkened rooms. When I passed handouts about using flash to everyone I watched people begin to read and some even nodded as if agreeing with what they were reading.

I use handouts so participants don’t need to take notes.

For those that didn’t have their own flash I had several lying on the table. There were also flashes with wireless receivers mounted on light-stands topped with umbrellas ready and waiting around the large room.

I began with my thoughts on why I think everyone should have a dedicated TTL flash and how we can balance the light in a room without giving our subjects that “deer in the headlights” look.

I moved on to high-speed sync and after everyone set his or her cameras up we moved outside to give that exciting feature a try. When I tell people their cameras can sync at 1/8000th of a second I always get looks of knowing disbelief because camera and flash manuals usually show a sync speed of 1/250th or slower.

After that, lets call it “awakening”, I gave everyone triggers to place on their cameras and we moved to the light-stands and spent the rest of the day using off-camera flash.

Although I talked a bit about posing, I was mostly interested in showing participants how to position the light.

It’s gratifying to have a group of photographers sit listening to one’s lecture on any subject, that’s great for the ego. But what makes me smile and reinforces my desire to continue is the excitement in the room.

In this case it was when 8 photographers, all competent at using their cameras, suddenly discovered how wonderful and creative using flash instead of natural light is, They may have bought a flash because the salesperson said they’d get a good deal if the purchased it with the camera. Or possibly they worried their camera’s ISO might not go high enough and needed a flash at a friend’s wedding reception.

As I was showing a quick, easy and flattering way to pose an uncomfortable subject I realized that the room was noisy with loud talk. I stepped back while a photograph was taken using an off-camera flash and I listened to the many excited discussions.

I realized I had a room full on converts.

Santa Photos with dogs 

 

This past week my friend and photographer Jo McAvany phoned to tell me she had volunteered to do photographs for a local business called the “Brazilian Dog Guru”.

The owner, Fernando Silva, had a great idea to photograph people’s dogs with Santa Claus for donations to support a local dog rescue organization.

I wasn’t surprised when Jo said she jumped at the offer to be the photographer. As well as an avid photographer, Jo has opened her home to a lot of rescued dogs over the years.

I was delighted that she would be doing that, and wasn’t surprised when she first asked if she could borrow some of my lights and second, suggested that I come too.

I thought it would be an unusual and fun way to spend the day. After all, I like dogs and they usually like me, so there we were at 11am on the following Sunday setting up lights in a small room while saying hello to Santa.

Soon excited people and their best friends were lining up outside waiting for the elves to take them inside for their photographs.

During the Christmas shopping days I sometimes like to watch the Mall Santa photographers as they work. The technology has changed over the years. Its digital cameras tethered to computers so that parents can instantly see the pictures, make their choices, pay and walk off with a matted print.

For a few years I set up the photography for local malls. Although that was back in the 1990s, not much has really changed much. However, back then instead of the digital camera and computer, the photographer would take the rolls of film to the one-hour processing lab at the end of the day and parents would have to return to get their pictures.

Most of the dogs and owners that came for Jo to photograph with Santa were well behaved. Although like some of the children I saw at the mall’s Santa booth, they weren’t having anything to do with that stranger sitting on a bale of hay.

The owners would bring them in to meet Santa and their eyes would roll and they would almost pull their person over trying to get away. More than once that meant finding a human that wasn’t wearing a red costume. Sometimes the dogs ran back to their owners, but more than once Jo almost was knocked over when they chose her as a safe refuge from the scary man that was grabbing at them from high on a bale of hay that probably seemed dangerous when it moved under their feet.

After setting up the lights I had nothing to do but pet all the dogs and be entertained by the goings on in the room set aside for Santa and my friend Jo. (A tough job, but someone had to do it)

By the end of the day I am sure Jo not only had a sore back from bending over, (we decided a tripod might get in the way of dogs and dog leashes) and although she didn’t mention it, she probably had a bruise or two from the big dogs that thought she was there to jump on.

What a fun way to spend a day.

Dogs and photography, it doesn’t get much better than that, unless one includes that this event was for a very good cause; collecting donations for the “Pom and Pals Country Rescue” dog shelter.

Oh, and there are now over 50 dogs that have a picture of themselves with Santa. I think some people are going to get some great Christmas cards this year.

Home studio Lighting set-ups for Beginning Photographers      

 

I am always pleased when I know that someone has actually read my articles.

Twice this past week I was visited by different aspiring photographers, that had read my last article on using lights and stopped by to ask advice on setting up home portrait studios.

For them and others that missed my past article on setting up a home studio, here it is again:

In each instance the photographers were quite troubled by the kind of lighting equipment other photographers were advising them to purchase and how much it was going to cost to get large and expensive studio lights.

They complained that they would have to wait till they had the money before a home studio lighting situation could be set up. I believe they were paying attention to those that included expensive manufacturer’s names for their studio type lighting setups.

One might be able to locate used studio lights with a bit of searching online. However, there will be shipping costs, plus there is a chance that they will arrive not working.

There usually isn’t lot of quality studio lights locally, and to confuse new photographers more there will be lots of those cheap, inadequate, constant light kits that were purchased by other unsuspecting beginners for sale.

My opinion is they don’t really need to go to the bank just yet, and would be better starting out with the smaller speedlight type flashes.

With the money they save by not purchasing those big studio type lights they could buy a couple inexpensive light stands, umbrellas and maybe even a softbox and backdrop.

Most small home photography studios are in the basement with equipment stored to the side until the photographer quickly sets up for a portrait session.

And if the room is less than twelve feet high, thirty feet long and only used for children, small groups or single person portraits, those big powerful and expensive studio lights may be overkill, and a real hassle when one wants to soften the background by shooting a wide aperture because there is just too much light power for small spaces.

Photographers intent on setting up small home studios for portraits and small groups don’t need to go to the expense of the brawny, studio type lights. They can easily, and without much initial cost, set up a studio with what I personally use, and call my “portrait kit”.

My portrait kit is four older hotshoe type flashes, each with it’s own wireless receiver and two stands. I can choose a shoot-through umbrella, a reflector umbrella, or once in a while a softbox, and might include a reflector. It’s an inexpensive and easily stored “portrait kit” that I would recommend for most first-time, home studio photographers.

Wireless senders and receivers come in all sorts of inexpensive incarnations, and it’s the same with lightstands and flash to umbrella mounts.

All of this is much less expensive, and a lot easier to store and/or move around than the big studio-type flash units.

Even if there were a wad of cash burning a hole it your pocket, my advice would be to proceed slowly, and learn how use light to best photograph a person first.

I have been using multiple flashes off-camera since the 1970s. I prefer inexpensive used units that I can cheaply replace if they get knocked over or I wear them out.

Hotshoe type speedlights off-camera will be perfect for that educational process, and when they are no longer a good fit with one’s creative growth, the choices as to the next step in lighting equipment will be educated decisions.

Outdoors flash photographer’s workshop        

Last August I wrote about setting up an outdoors studio in the meadow on the south side of my home for my friend Joleen McAvany. Readers will remember that Jo wanted to do a “Disney Princess” session with some of her friends.

Jo posted her studio-like photographs from that day online. Her photos were so successful that I decided to offer another how-to workshop.

I limited participation to four interested photographers and Jo easily talked two of her friends into braving the cool October day to be our models.

I like flash and never pass by an opportunity to introduce photographers that normally would only use flash in dimly lighted rooms, to the advantage of employing flash in the daylight.

Jo and I set up both a white canvas backdrop and a painted blue/grey canvas backdrop. I had purchased the painted canvas, but the white canvas was formally a large painters ground cloth spattered with paint that I got for free.

I attached several older 1970 vintage flashes on light stands with umbrellas. All were connected to wireless receivers and I gave a trigger to each photographer.

My lecture was about balancing the light from the flash with the ambient light. The key light (main light) that modeled the features of our ever-patient subjects, Morgan and Cora came from the flashes, not the sun.

Jo gave a posing demo using a 60mm, then a 70-180mm and finally a 400mm lens as she positioned each model in turn. Then after showing everyone how effective the long lenses were, and how easily it is to control the flashes, I positioned each depending on the light.

I then let the attending photographers experiment and learn as I showed them how great their photos could be using flash in the daylight.

Most had seen some of Jo’s “Princess” photos and I reminded them that she had originally asked me, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Now I have introduced four more photographers to using flash as a creative tool instead of just something that brightens a dimly lighted room or gives a flat light on some subject’s face that is standing in the shade.

I am left wondering if they will start using flash. It is so easy to be lazy and leave the flash at home on a sunny day. However, the resulting photographs where one controls the light and is able to place it to flatter and model a subjects face should be enough to convince any serious photographer.

I would like to think I was successful in convincing those four photographers that adding the light from a flash will make their photographs stand out among photographers that depend on the inconsistent light from the sun.

Note: Photos by Joleen McAvany