Christmas Tree Lights

Every year and particularly with the advent of social networking, people like to post pictures of their Christmas tree.  Generally, there are either very dark (with lots of grain) or flashed to the point that one can not actually see the lit lights on the tree.  Photographically this is a problem shooting a picture with very bright objects (the lights) against a very dark background and unlike the fireworks principle of lighting, one would really like to see the tree and ornaments.

I show three different approaches to this problem.  



The first approach is perhaps the most straightforward.  I simply adjust the settings on the camera to obtain an exposure slightly under exposed (-.5 to -1 EV)  The settings for this picture were ISO 200, f2.8 at 1/4 of a second (not hand held) and then I bounced a strobe light off the wall behind me at an TTL setting of -0.7 addiing just enough light to brighten the room a bit.


1112240029-0037 HDR

To capture a broad range of light, the technique of high dynamic range (HDR) imaging can be useful, although some people feel that it makes the picture look artifical.  To use this approach you need to set the camera on manual mode, set the ideal exposure ( 0EV) and then take a series of pictures by adjusting the shutter speed to under and over expose the picture in equal segments.  I typically use 7 or 9 exposures in approximately 1/3 EV values:  -1EV, -2/3EV, -1/3EV, 0EV, 1/3EV, 2/3EV and 1 EV.  As example, if the 0EV shutter speed is 1/100, then -1EV would be 1/200 and 1EV would be 1/50.  I use Photomatix HDR software to recombine the 7 or 9 images to generate a single picture, but there are several different options for HDR image generation.



And this is the last approach which will 'work' when you can use a strobe effectively or HDR imaging technology.  This is the Christmas Tree in the Walnut Room in the Macy's store in downtown Chicago.  For this picture, I shot at an ISO of 2500 at 1/80 with an aperture of f2.8.  I opened the aperture as wide as it would go, set the shutter speed to a level that I am comfortable shooting handheld and then adjusted the ISO upward until I had a good exposure.   I did a little bit of post process in Aperture to brighten the darker areas of the picture a bit.

I hope this will help you have a very merry holiday season as you tackle those difficult lighting situations and get all the new camera gear you want!!!

On location portraits

1110170049 - Version 2

This picture is another one of a location business shoot primarily for the purpose of headshots and website use.  I placed another one from the session in Recent Favorites and the concept of setting up this picture are the same with a slight variation of placement of lighting.  

One thing about on location portraits is the highly variable character and quality of light.  For this particular picture, I decided to position the client in front of a window so the outside buildings would be visible.  As usual, I set my shutter speed to the maximum sync speed (1/250), set my aperture (f4) and ISO (400)  to obtain a slightly over exposed background (about 1/2 to 1 stop over) and then filled her face with a strobe (SB900 controlled with a miniTT1/AC3 and Flex5 from PocketWizard).  If memory serves me correctly I used a manual setting to adjust the strobe based on what I was seeing on the camera screen (chimping).  I was also sending the strobe through an umbrella.  In an earlier pictures, the light was a bit flatter so I moved the strobe further to my left to generate a bit more short lighting. 

By setting the shutter speed first (at 1/250) I am able to reduce the background light to the maximum possible extent relative to the front lighting (I could use hypersync technologies to use a faster shutter speed, but that did not seem necessary for this picture) and still not reduce the efficacy of the strobe lighting.  I also wanted a bit of a depth of field (hence f4 vs something lower) and then I adjusted ISO to get to the exposure I wanted.  

Shooting on location

While the picture below could have been taken in the studio, it was actually shot in the client's home.  In many cases, particularly with young children this is advantageous as they are more comfortable in that environment.  For this image, I positioned the clients several feet in front of a clean white/neutral colored wall.  I used two SB900: one to light the background and one to light the subjects.  Both were pointed through an umbrella and triggered with a PocketWizard MiniTT1/AC3 and Flex5.  I adjusted the background to be about 1.5 stops above the foreground lighting.  Camera settings were ISO 200, f7.1, 1/160 @ 48mm with a 24-70mm f2.8 lens on a Nikon D700.


Hotdog Dachsund

I try to shoot a couple of local events every year and post the pictures up on my print fulfillment website for people to look at and buy, if they are so inclined.  The above picture was purchased by Claudia in a card format shortly after the event (May 2007).  A few days ago (April 2011), I received an email from her asking if I still had the picture.

A few years ago, you photographed my parents dog at the elmhurst pet parade. I ordered some note cards from you and would like to get more for my folks. They love the photo and have used all the cards but one. My 81 yr. old dad is in the hospital now and has the card in the window of his room. He shows it to all the nurses. I'm hoping you still have the file on this's a daschund in a hot dog costume. Let me know if you can find took a great photo and I know my folks would love to have more of the cards.

Thanks so much!


With about 1-2 hours of work,  I was able to find the picture she was interested in (plus all the other pictures I had to the dog from the event) and with some more work was able to generate a 4x5.5 card for her (See below)

I tell this story for a couple of reasons.  Perhaps and foremost, it highlights one of my themes about how I think about photographs.  Yes, there is an immediate satisfaction of seeing the picture on your computer screen, but, and I feel this is very important, we can look at the picture at some future time and obtain a great deal of satisfaction, appreciation and understanding of our past.  It is sad that so many pictures are never printed and those memories will be lost in time.  

LESSON 1-Pictures are a very important to our memories and will enrich our lives, our children’s lives, our great grand children’s lives and beyond.  There are very few things that have the potential to have such a profound impact.  When I shoot, I try to visualize what might appeal to those future generations as well as the current one. 

LESSON 2-Take the time to make prints of your important pictures.  It is very easy to use services like Kodakgallery or Shutterfly.  Not only will you get acceptable prints, but in uploading them for prints, you are also archiving your important pictures away from your home in case something happens. 

For all of my pictures, I strive to maintain 4 copies of each picture.  

COPY #1--This is my working copy where I will do all of my work

COPY #2--My mobile copy where I will occasionally do work when I am away from my main computer

COPY #3--Is my backup of my working copy

COPY #4--Is my archive copy (This copy is stored offsite)

I use Western Digital drives: Passport drives for mobile use, vanilla drives which I insert into a Drobo RAID system for my working files, and the various Studio drives from Western Digital as backups and archive drives.  I use SuperDuper as my backup software. 

LESSON 3-Take the time to make to back up your important digital pictures.  I have lost a number of drives over the years and every hard drive will eventually fail.  It is just a matter of time.

I have developed a systematic way of labeling every picture taken.  I would guess that I have 200,000 picture files and that is a lot to remember and manage.  For many years I number each picture according to the following approach.   Each picture is numbered YYMMDDxxxx where YY is a two digit year number, MM is a two digit month number and DD is a two digit day number.   xxxx is a sequential number between 0001 and 9999.  the YYMMDD is the day that I actually did the shoot.  If I do two shoots on a day, I will add a suffice , e.g., YYMMDDaxxxx or YYMMDDbxxxx  WIth this approach, I don’t have to remember what name I applied to the picture.  All I need to know is when I took the pictures.  I manage a small Excel spreadsheet that lists YYMMDD and a description of the the shoot on that day.  I then create folders on my drives that reflect this strategy.  I will have one folder for each month of the year plus a miscellaneous folder for that year.  Within each monthly folder, will be the individual shoot folders with the label YYMMDD.  

LESSON 4-Take the time to develop a methodology for labeling your image files that does not depend on you remembering a particular name and make it systematic.  This systematic approach allowed me to find the pictures relevant to this client although it was nearly four years later.  Every picture should have a unique name!  

Because of my systematic approach to archiving image files, I was able to put together 4x5.5 card for Claudia within 48 hours of her initial inquiry.  And her 81 year old father will enjoy some fresh prints of his favorite dog!

PocketWizard's Mini TT1, Flex5 and AC3

In all cases or certainly most cases, when additional light is needed the photographer will want the dominant lighting to be off camera.   There are many reasons for this.  With strobe directly in line with the lens (on the camera), there is always a risk of the terrible red eye which is the result of light bouncing from the back of the person’s eye (retina) and the lighting is very flat (both sides of the face are exposed equally).  To provide for more directional lighting that provides for dimensionality to a person’s face and adds interest to the picture, off camera lighting is used.  

There are several strategies to move the light off the camera.

1. First, and the one which I use frequently is the black foamy thing which blocks light from the strobe but allows the photographer to bounce the light off an appropriate ceiling or wall.  For a description of the black foamy thing, see the blog of Neil Van Niekerk.  Below is an example of a picture using the black foamy thing and as you can see it generates wonderfully soft directional light.  My SB900 with its black foamy thing was pointed over my left shoulder.  Camera settings were ISO 200, f6.3, 1/125 which I chose to balance the exposure outside of the cottage with the inside, using the strobe to add light inside.  


2. A second approach is to use the Nikon built in optical signaling system to control a slave strobe with a master strobe on the camera.  This system works very well in small spaces and there are several other significant limitations:

       a. typically the slave strobe needs to be between the master strobe and the subject

       b. ambient light should not be too bright

       c. the distance between the slave and master is limited

       d. and the optical sensor on the slave must be pointed toward the master strobe except in well defined situations

On obvious solution for the limitations of optical signaling is to use radio frequency (RF) that does not suffer from any of those limitation mentioned above.  It is such an obvious solution it has baffled me as to why camera manufacturers have not incorporated RF into their camera and strobes.

In response to this obvious void, two players have appeared: Radiopoppers and PocketWizard.   Their respective solutions appear to be different.  Radiopoppers capture the optical signaling output, convert it to RF and then appear to signal the slave by converting the RF back to optical.  Pocket Wizard appears to capture the camera output, converts it to RF and sends a controlling RF signal to the slave without conversion back to an optical signal to drive the slave strobe.  For me the Pocket Wizard solution seemed cleaner.  While the PW devices have been available for Canon cameras for a while, there was no PW solution for Nikon cameras.   

But last fall, PocketWizard announced their miniTT1, AC3 and FlexTT5 for Nikon.  I never like being the first player with new technology so I waited until June to purchase this technology.  The MiniTT1 is a pure transmitter and it can be controlled with either a strobe on top of it (I use an SB900, but you can use SB800 and probably use others as well) or if one does not need the camera strobe they can use the AC3 that allows both TTL and manual control of the slave strobe.  For the slave strobe, one needs the FlexTT5 (this can function as either a transmitter or receiver, although they are about twice as large as the MiniTT1/AC3 solution)  The user can control three different zones (A, B, or C) and there are two different transmission channels  to provide additional control.  

I am sort of a vanilla photographer.  I am modestly interesting in the hypersync capabilities of the new system, but I as a portrait and wedding photographer keenly interested in consistency and predictability in performance in TTL or manual mode.  When I purchased one MiniTT1, one AC3 and 2 FlexTT5, they came with firmware version 2.100 and with the PocketWizard Utility I verified that was the latest version of firmware although there was a beta version 2.146 available.

This story has a happy ending, but I think my experience has some lessons in it.  Shortly after purchase during use and more formal testing, I discovered that the SB900/FlexTT5 seemed very reliable (although on one occasion it quit working for inexplicable reasons) but the SB800/FlexTT5 had either an appropriate amount of power or clearly not enough power.  In discussions with technical support they suggested two things:  reset my SB800 and upgrade my firmware.  

I did reset my SB800, but was not able to figure out how to upgrade to the beta vesion 2.146.  Since firmware 2.1 was considered the most current, I decided it should work just fine.  This was not the case, and I continued to have performance problems with my SB800/FlexTT5 combination.

Sort of in desperation, I decided to videotape the SB800/FlexTT5 to try to figure out what was going on.   In doing so, I discovered that the FlexTT5 was receiving a signal from the MiniTT1 even though the SB800 output was either ok or way to low.  This led me to one of two conclusions.  In the event of low SB800 output, either it was a pre-flash that I was seeing or it was a full output that was seriously out of sync with the shutter.

I called PocketWizard support again and explained to them all of the testing that I had done.  They had two recommendations:  try upgrading to the beta version 2.146 and/or call the development engineers (they provided a name and telephone number).  This time I had the presence of mind to ask for guidance as to how to download beta version 2.146 and I downloaded and installed beta version 2.146 on all three devices.

THAT WORKED.  I have shot a couple of portrait sessions and weddings and the only failures seem to be related to user problems.  In these cases, the devices appear to have worked perfectly or nearly so.  I will be keeping this product and using it regularly.

 UPDATE: VERSION 3.003 of firmware is the most current version and the problems I experienced should no longer be present today.

If I had a wish list, it would contain the following:

a. Ability to use rechargeable batteries (PW advises against using rechargeable batteries)

b. An indicator of how much battery life was left

c. A power source for the MiniTT1 different than the 2450 (a very special battery)

Off Camera Lighting

PocketWizard's Mini TT1, Flex 5 and AC3

In this picture, I was shooting in open shade with a bright background.  I set my f-stop to f4 and adjusted my shutter speed (1/160) so the background was slightly over exposed at ISO 200.  This would have left the main subjects image to be dark, but to camera left by about 10-15 feet, I used an SB900/FlexTT5 slave to add light back to the subject.  In my initial setting, I set the slave to -1.5ev, but when I looked at the image, the subject needed more light.   I simply dialed up the light with my SB900/MiniTT1/AC3 so the slave was set to -0.7ev on my D700 and took a second shot, as shown above.   

You can see the catch-light in his eyes at about 11AM and the modest short lighting.

In this picture, I was shooting in open shade with a bright background.  I set my f-stop to f4 and adjusted my shutter speed (1/160) so the background was slightly over exposed at ISO 200.  This would have left the main subjects image to be dark, but to camera right by about 10-15 feet, I used an SB900/FlexTT5 slave to add light back to the subject.  In my initial setting, I set the slave to -0.7ev.  Without the additional strobe light, their faces would have been dark and under exposed.

It is absolutely wonderful to be able to adjust strobe output with the MiniTT1 and AC3 in either TTL or manual mode without the large bulk of an additional strobe on the camera.  This picture was processed through CS5 and then Nik Silver Efex Pro

See more discussion on the PocketWizard's MiniTT1, Flex5 and AC3 

A© 2011-2015 by Steven Seelig, Chicago Photographer                          630-561-6581