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The $100 Portrait Lighting Challenge

$100 flash challenge

The components of my $100 portrait lighting challenge assembled

In the recent past we covered basic three point lighting for portraits and basic five point lighting. That’s all well and good if you have a space big enough for a studio and can afford the equipment. But what do you do when you’re just starting out and can’t afford all that? Or you have to choose between portrait lighting and your kid’s braces? There are also many situations where you want to shoot fast and scoot along without the overhead of setting up big lights.

Today I thought it would be fun to put together an ultra-el cheapo, one light, hand-held system that will still take a decent portrait and try to keep the price tag below $100. Here’s what I came up with and today’s prices.

Yongnuo YN-467 Flash (I had one of these left over from another article) $76.65

A Neewer 33in Translucent Umbrella $7.07

Flash Shoe Holder Type B with Umbrella Holder $7.95

That all comes to $91.67. I picked the components for value, price and versatility. The umbrella you can use as a shoot-through or shoot turn the flash around and shoot into it. It yields a nice soft light that works surprisingly well for portraits.

No flash sync cable or wireless controllers this time, neither one was in the budget. To make it work off-camera, I’m going to set the flash power manually and use my camera’s built-in flash to trigger the external flash in slave mode. But to keep the built-in flash from taking over, I’m going to shoot in Program mode, manual flash operation, and crank the flash exposure compensation down to -2 ⅔.

Now the built-in flash is way underexposed but still bright enough to fire the slave trigger so most of the usable light is coming from the external flash, but there’s still enough from the built-in flash to fill in some of the shadows without being too harsh.

model photo jone

Proof is in the pudding. For $100 in lighting gear I think that looks really good.

The flash bracket is the type that can be mounted on a flash stand, which you can pick up for around $20.

Since I already have a flash stand I’m going to use it even though that, technically, puts me over budget. I could just as easily hand-hold it or get someone to hold it for me, so I’m claiming the $100 price point victory anyway!

Okay, fellow cheapskates, show me what you got.  Let’s see how many of you can beat my $100 rig on price and quality.

model shot three

I think these came out excellent and I didn't have to advertise myself as a "natural light photographer"

model shot two

I used AfterShot Pro for a little touch up, but I would not be embarrassed to charge money for these shots.

 

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The $8.99 Flash Snoot, Lunch Included

One of my friends at Pixel-Mesh took a few household tools and the leftover pizza box from his lunch and fashioned it into a homemade flash snoot that yielded surprisingly good results.  A snoot restricts the light and allows you to direct it at a specific location, helping you to eliminate “light spill”

The Tools

Razor knife, builders square, and dark duct tape (it's not a hack without duct tape)

A razor knife, builders square and a roll of dark colored duct tape (you knew duct tape was going to make an appearance somewhere).

 

 

 

 

 

Using The Top of The Box

Any flat piece of cardboard will do, but will they also be a pizza scented air freshener?

Cut the outline of the snoot shape and cover the cardboard with a layer of duct tape.
 

 

 

 

 

Fold Into the Proper Shape

Tape flat first

Fold into the proper shape and tape it into position.
 

 

 

 

 

Then tape into shape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attach to The Flash

The homemade snoot attached to the flash

If you sized it right it will fit on the flash without taping it.
 

 

 

 

 

The Results

With the flash attached to a Canon 5D MKII the results are not bad, not bad at all.

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Tips For Shooting Dramatic Silhouettes

silhouette example

Exposing for the daylight beyond the door got the look I wanted in this photo

A silhouette can add dramatic flair to an otherwise average shot by providing a bold subject and sharp contrast. A silhouette turns a solid thing with depth into a flat, two-dimensional cut out that brings back memories of shadow puppets.

Modern digital cameras make shooting silhouettes a lot easier and what the camera can’t do for you, you can always touch up in post processing.

Find The Scene

A silhouette is basically an underexposed subject framed by a brightly lit background. Look for situations where you’re shooting from the shadows toward the light, like the photo of the man and his son sweeping out the garage.

photo by Kol Tregaskes from flickr

Another trick with silhouettes is to get low and in close to the subject and shoot at a slight upward angle. Shooting slightly upward lengthens the lines and makes the contrast bolder.

Any bright background will do. Daylight, stained glass windows, bright lights, or a sunset sky are all great backdrops for a silhouette.

Turn Off The Flash

Munich in Silhouette by Werner Kunz from flickr

This is one time you want to be in a shooting mode that gives you at least some manual control and in auto mode your camera is going to try and fire that fill flash. I’d shoot the scene both ways: One as a silhouette, the other with the fill flash, and see which one you like better.

Expose For The Background

There are a number of ways to do this. Many cameras will let you point the camera at the brighter part of the picture, then press the shutter release button half-way down to lock the exposure and reframe the picture before pushing the button all the way down. Other cameras, like the Nikon D5100, have a special exposure lock button.

There’s also the old fashioned way of using your camera to meter the brighter part of the photo, then dial the exposure in manually.

bird silhouette

A fairly average looking shot is improved greatly by taking the detail out of the foreground subject

Focus For The Subject

The only problem for some cameras when it comes to using the half-way press on the shutter button is that it also freezes the auto-focus. Not so much with modern cameras, like my Canon 7D, which will adjust the focus even if the exposure is locked. Just be aware you may have to tweak the focus manually on some older cameras.

Clean It Up In Post

photo by Brenden Sherratt, used with permission

If the exposure isn’t perfect in the camera don’t sweat it, a silhouette is fairly easy to clean up in post. Since you’re not trying to preserve any detail in the subject, you can usually make the adjustments with just the brightness/contrast tools, which almost every image program on the planet offers.

Worst case you have to use the selection tools to outline the silhouette and selectively drop the brightness.

Silhouettes are a good exercise to get familiar with your camera’s exposure compensation features and you’ll end up with some great shots as well. Happy shooting.

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Hack Your Canon Point-and-Shoot Camera

canon camera

Owners of Canon point and shoot cameras can have fun with firmware hacks

Owners of some models of Canon point-and-shoot cameras have some interesting features that can be added to their cameras with the help of CHDK firmware hacks.

CHDK stands for Canon Hack Developer Kit and can add features like RAW file output, motion detection that’s fast enough to catch lightning in a bottle, automatic bracketing, full manual control, zebra mode, a live histogram, and crazy high flash sync speeds.

The changes are temporary and can be reset just by switching data cards and resetting the camera. All the same the software is free and experimental, you’re responsible if something goes wrong.

Even better CHDK is being actively developed, so you’ll have new features being added all the time.

If your camera is on the support camera list in the FAQ all you need is a spare SD card and you’re right in business.

CHDK does not replace your camera’s native firmware, it loads as an add-on program that extends the firmware’s capability in lots of interesting ways.

For DSLR users of the Canon 5D MK II, 550D, 60D, 50D, and 600D, you also have some nifty firmware hacks you can play with over at Magic Lantern. Initially developed for video users it has since been expanded to find some of the features found in CHDK.

There’s some debate about whether using CHDK or Magic Lantern voids your warranty so it’s worth some research before deciding whether to try it. Messing with the firmware is never completely risk free, even if you’re upgrading the factory firmware.

Still there is no firmware fun for Canon 7D users.  Magic Lantern has finally got the blank firmware to read properly, but no time frame on further developments.

If you have one of the compatible cameras, read the installation instructions carefully and go have fun.

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When Does Photo Manipulation Go Too Far?

image manipulation

These retouches are considered minor by today's standards

It all started innocently enough; editing out a pimple here, a blemish there, maybe a chipped tooth. It was easy, it made the client feel better, and it was, for the most part, harmless.

Fast forward to today and digital manipulation has gotten totally out of hand. It’s not just blemishes and pimples anymore. Today we shave years off a face and pounds off a body, lengthen necks and make eyes bigger, lips pouty, and change hair color on a whim. Clickity, clickity done.

Color and lighting are now skills that can be mastered in post. With Photoshop plugins like Color Efex Pro 4 you can change the color scheme, lighting and almost anything else you desire.

All that taken together is bad enough, now comes along a product like LayerCake Elements and now the manipulations to the subject are just the beginning. Now you can add trees, grass and flowers. Don’t like the sky? How about nice sunset sky instead? Add a few clouds for dramatic effect. Put the moon over there, add a few stars because we have to pay attention to details. Need a horse? No problem, drag and drop, resize to fit the scene. Done and done.

Time, date, and place are now meaningless. It reminds me of the sunset scene in the John Wayne movie Green Berets (1968), supposedly set in Vietnam but featuring the sun setting behind the ocean. Those with a 5th grade understanding of geography know that Vietnam doesn’t have a westward facing ocean view. But that didn’t stop the filmmakers and it doesn’t stop the photographer with LayerCake. You can have a sunset anywhere.

So where does all this stop? Or does it? It’s easy to smirk and wonder if grandpa is having trouble adjusting to the new digital reality but keep in mind I was digitally manipulating images when most of you still had training wheels on your bike. At some point do we in the photography community have to say enough and start asserting ourselves in favor of reality? How will we know when we’ve gone too far?

In some fields that question has already been answered. Like photojournalism, where retouching, even adding a little smoke is a non-starter. You’ll not only get fired, you’ll be vilified and humiliated as a value added bonus. Your career will be over.

But what about the rest of us? Do we owe reality a nod, or is reality merely a canvas for us to paint our vision? Are master photo manipulators actual photographers, or something less?

Where it all ends is with H&M’s new lingerie catalog where the faces of the models are real, but the bodies are computer generated.  What do you think is “too far” in digital manipulation?

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