Tag Archives: photography tips

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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Pixels, Bytes, and DPI – Oh My!

When it comes to sensors, size matters, but maybe not as much as people think - by Infomatique via Flickr

Understanding the difference between megapixels, megabytes and DPI is one of those subjects that makes people glaze over sometimes because it’s technical. But, if you’re angling to make money from photography or do it for a living, it’s important to understand what the terms mean and the difference it makes in your photos. So, while I realize a pictorial of hot models in skimpy clothing is how you’d rather be spending your time, I’m going to try to make this discussion as fun and interesting as humanly possible.

Megapixels

Probably the most ridiculously overused comparison in digital cameras today, and the camera manufacturers go along with it because it’s not worth the effort trying to explain why it’s not always a fair comparison. Comparing cameras by their megapixel rating is like my wife picking a new car because she likes the color. The number of megapixels has very little to do with the quality of the final image. Color, tone and sharpness will have far more sway over the quality of the final image, which is one of the reasons the highest rated cameras are all over the road when it comes to the megapixel rating of the sensor.

The difference in megapixels does effect the resolution of the final image, but even that is a geometric comparison and not a linear scale. The number of pixels increases by the square of the resolution. If you double the resolution of an image, you quadruple the number of pixels.

If you’re comparing a 5 megapixel camera, like your cell phone, with the 10 megapixel Sony TX300v, you now know that does not mean the 10 megapixel camera is twice as good. In fact, the difference in resolution is just 1.4 x in either dimension. Not so great now, is it?

sensor size chart

You have to nearly double the sensor size to see any significant increase in resolution - via Wikipedia

So when considering the difference between a 16 megapixel camera and a 19 megapixel camera, the difference is nearly insignificant. Other factors in camera and lens quality can erase such a small difference.

Where megapixels do matter is the image size, the more megapixels, the bigger the final image. That says nothing about the quality. A large blurry image through a bad lens is still a bad picture no matter how large it is.

If you’re just looking at your own pictures on a display device, it’s not an issue. If you’re hoping to sell stock photography, it becomes more important because many stock photo companies set minimum image sizes.

True resolution

Snapsort uses true resolution which is based on the physical size of a cameras sensor and not the manufactures advertised high megapixels, which can be misleading.

Megabytes

A megabyte is a measure of digital storage, the same as it’s applied to any digital storage. How large an image is is loosely related to the final image size, but every image file is a little different based on a large number of factors including the compression type (JPEG vs RAW).

NASA photo

In 1999 NASA had to take a composite image to get this 2,796 x 2,796 pixel image of Io. Roughly 8-megapixels, or about the same resolution as an iPhone 4s today - by NASA

DPI

Dots per inch is only relevant to a discussion of a printer or other display device. Outside of printers, you can pretty much forget about DPI. In the old days if you changed the picture DPI, your editing software would automatically resize the print output. These days if you tell Photoshop you want a 5×7 and change the DPI, you’ll still get a 5×7 print.

In photography it’s all about the resolution and resolution is measured in megapixels, but that isn’t necessarily significant unless the difference is very large.  There would be a noticeable difference between an 8-megapixel camera and a 12-megapixel camera, the difference between 12 and 16-megapixels would not be as significant, if it were even noticeable.

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Lighting Portraits With Candlelight

lighting by candlelight

Valentine's Day is a good opportunity to experiment with lighting by candlelight - by Chantel Beam Photography via Flickr

Valentine’s Day presents an opportunity to experiment with a really old-fashioned light source; it’s one of those days a lot of people choose candlelight.

There’s something visceral about fire in the human psyche and candles provide a single, pure pinpoint of fire that is both warm and intimate at the same time. You know you’re a real photo geek when a romantic candlelight dinner inspires you to break out the camera and tripod!

One of the really amazing things about new digital DSLRs is their low light performance. Just a few years ago trying to light exclusively by candlelight meant risking a house fire. Today even APS-C sensors like the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D (compare) can yield decent results in low light and full frame cameras like the Canon 5D MK II and Nikon D700 (compare) can shoot in extremely low light.

Don’t Worry About Noise

This is one time you can forget about the ISO. Most digital cameras start showing low light artifacts anywhere over ISO 800. But candlelight portraits are one instance when the noise can actually add to a photo, so don’t be afraid to experiment with higher ISOs. If the pictures are too noisy you can always add more candles.

candlelight 4

Low light noise can actually add to a candlelight photo - by Miss Baker

Use a Tripod

Trotting out a tripod for some candid shots may not be the most romantic gesture, but it’s still better than hand-holding at slow shutter speeds. Even a gelled fill flash will spoil the effect, so there’s no real option here.

I wouldn’t go any lower than 1/15 of a second with a human subject as it’s hard for anyone to hold that still.

Use Reflectors

A white tablecloth actually works quite well as a natural reflector. A mirror will give you sharper shadows and strong directional lighting. Your standard photographic reflector clamped to a light stand will also come in handy to fill in the deeper shadows.

You can use aluminum foil over a piece of cardboard if you want a more irregular effect. If there’s a whiff of breeze, a flickering candle with an aluminum foil reflector can look like a campfire.

candle 3

Candles can function equally well as foreground or background lighting - by Walt Stoneburner via Flickr

Experiment

There are two ways you can go with candlelight photos: You can expose for the subject and overexpose the candle flame or you can expose for the candle flames and deliberately under-light the subject.

Try it both ways and try different combinations. You can sometimes use LED or incandescent bulbs as background light if you need more depth.

Do remember that a couple pictures of a special occasion is one thing, but a good photographer also knows when it’s time to hang up the camera and enjoy the moment.

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Take Better Travel Photos Today

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster in London, Photo by Brenden Sherratt

One of the biggest mistakes most people make in the pursuit of travel and holiday pictures is overlooking the fabulous in a quest for the trite and cliche. Every photographer in the business has made that mistake at one point in their career, so make a pledge that the pictures you take on holiday this year will be different.

Everyone knows what the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument look like. Any photos you could take will probably look just like hundreds of others of the same exact thing. Yes, take one or two, just for the scrapbook value, but don’t stop there. Find a unique angle, a different way of looking at something familiar.

Reflection of the Washington Monument in an eye. Photo by Jennuine Captures

When I used to work on a military base the building we were in had a peculiar paint job around the front door. Otherwise, it was just another nondescript government building designed and built by the low bidder. But the front door was distinct. So when I took a picture to remember my time there, I took a picture of the door handle. The handle that I reached for every morning for years and years and eventually came to dread touching. So many emotions all tied to an object that I looked at every day and almost failed to notice.

When you’re on vacation, get a shot of the touristy things, then try to find little details that define your experience. Maybe it’s a unique cab driver, or a street vendor, or some other details that normally get lost in the background clutter.

Faces in Temple Bar, Dublin, Photo by Brenden Sherratt

I have a friend with a large family who recently was able to get four generations of daughters together for a photo. He took the predictable group photo, then took one of everyone putting just their hands in a circle over a black background. Guess which picture was the most popular?

It’s the details that seem inconsequential today that spark the most vivid memories tomorrow. There was a stand of trees where we used to live, nothing particularly special about them, just trees. One day I fired off a shot just to check exposure levels of that stand of trees and forgot to delete it. It got mixed in with the assignment that day and I ran across it days later processing the pictures for the customer.

tree photo

A photo of a stand of trees that I almost deleted ended up meaning more to me than I would have thought at the time

To this day that’s one of my favorite shots. Just some trees, but I saw them every time I went outside and, even today, that shot can bring memories of that place flooding back.

So this year, don’t just take the obvious shots. Take pictures of hands, feet, dog toys, crumpled wrapping paper, and the millions of other little details you see but don’t always notice. Instead of just looking at the tourist attraction, look to the left and right, look behind it. Find a unique angle and tell a different story the next time you are on a trip.

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Three Common Photo Mistakes and How To Fix Them

When you look at a lot of pictures, you begin to see trends in the mistakes.  Look at enough pictures over a long enough time and you’ll start to see the major trends fall into just three or four broad categories.

Anyone can take better pictures by following a few simple guidelines that will help you avoid the big three mistakes that are most common as you look across hundreds of images.

Get In Closer

wide shot

This is as close as I could get without getting wet

Probably the most common mistake I see in photos is that they were taken from too far away.  There’s a huge amount of background and right in the center is the little tiny subject.

The easiest way fix that is just to zoom with your feet and walk up closer to your subject, cutting down at the amount of background in the shot.   Sometimes, like when you’re shooting at the beach, you can’t always do that.

cropped surfer

Now the picture is more interesting with less background

For the times you can’t walk up closer to the subject, you can use your camera’s digital or lens zoom to frame the picture a little tighter.

Okay, you’re as close as you can get on foot and your camera lens is zoomed all the way and it’s still not close enough.  From there you can bump up the image size your camera is shooting to its absolute maximum, and then crop out parts of the picture you don’t want later on your computer.

Use Fill Flash During The Day

fill flash

The lighting is good but there are too many shadows around the subject

It’s ironic that most digital cameras are optimized to take their best pictures at a time of day that the light is less than perfect for taking pictures.  Well, it is what it is and you have to deal with the harsh shadows, ball caps, and squint-eyed subjects that are the result of direct sun.

Fixing direct sun involves a device called a scrim which is a lot of work to set up and take down.

fill flash

Fill flash, a little cropping and this photo is much better

Another option is just to move into a shady area and turn on your camera’s internal flash or use an external flash.

Remember to ask your subjects to remove their sunglasses unless you want them to look like mobsters.

The Point of Interest Does Not Go In The Middle

rule of thirds

The eyes are the subject of a good portrait and don't belong in the center of the photo

It’s called the Rule of Thirds and not the Suggestion of Thirds for a reason.  So many times people will zero in on the subject and want to put it right in the middle of the shot.

In a portrait, the eyes tend to be the point of interest, so make sure they’re not right in the center of the picture.  Put the subject or the point of interest at the intersection of one of the thirds and compose the rest of the shot around that.

If you follow just these three rules, your shots will be better than 90 percent of pictures ever taken.

 

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