Basic Studio Set up

Stargazer Lily with backlight shot in studio

Studio work is not really my thing, but I’ve had a few situations where I needed it. I created some of my abstract floral shots in a studio and it was a must to shoot for a gaming company several years ago. Recently a student also asked about a low-cost studio setup, so I thought I’d share what I did with everyone today.

This list is intended for a small studio setup, to shoot still life tabletop, portraits or for you to do your own videos with a basic backdrop.

First off I visited a website a friend recommended called the Strobist. They have a nicely written article on lighting 101. They give you the basics for setting up a studio and also have a couple of kits you can buy.

After reading through that material you will need to find a space to shoot. Do you want natural lighting or do you want to control all of the light? For the game company shoot, I worked in a basement and blacked out the windows with a heavy fabric. This allowed me to control all of the light. You will need to pay attention to shadows cast by all of your light sources and to any distracting reflections on the subject.

Studio setup in bedroom

Recently I have moved my studio setup to a bedroom that has large windows to one side and overhead lights. This was sufficient for me to shoot a number of items I wanted to put up on eBay. And I hope to create some short video segments for my teaching channel on Youtube – coming soon!

For equipment I have the following items:

  • Canon 550 EX flash – yeah it’s a dinosaur from my film days but it works fine
  • LumoPro compact umbrella
  • Cheaplights spring clamps – to hold the paper onto the table
  • 5001B Nano Stand Black – to hold the flash and umbrella
  • ePhoto Video Backdrop with dark grey and white paper rolls for backgrounds.
  • Tripod – I use a Gitzo G1348 MK2 4 section tripod – it holds a lot of weight and is very stable
  • Shutter release cord – I prefer this to the remotes and I can stand behind the camera to release the shutter.
  • 5 in 1 reflectors in two sizes – 22″ and 45″

You can use a flash or studio lights. I have some old studio lights I purchased a long time ago that I used for some of my shots, but a flash will work fine as well and sometimes you might want the combination. For more advanced techniques multiple flash units are needed. You should learn how to use the flash manually for the best results and most control, but TTL auto does a decent job.

Hot shoe adapter for flash

I still use the flash from my film days. It’s almost 20 years old. It pays to buy good equipment as it’ll last. The only drawback is it’s not wireless so I had to get a hot shoe adapter with a cord to link the flash to the camera since you place the flash on the Nano stand and not on the camera. This allows you to adjust the angle of the light on your subject.

Umbrella used to reflect light back onto the subject from the flash.

The umbrella is essentially a diffuser for the flash. You can shoot the flash into the umbrella and then that light is reflected back onto the subject or you can shoot through the umbrella so it acts like a softbox.

The ePhoto Video backdrop is adjustable both in height and width. The setup shown above only uses 2 of the 4 poles provided for the width. I have both white and grey paper for backdrops. You can also use fabric. The options are limitless. Make sure the background does not interfere with the main subject, so keep it simple.

The clamps hold the paper down onto the table I am using. They are also useful for various other things such as securing reflectors.

If you don’t already have one, get a good tripod. I’ll post another blog on tripods, but you want one that is suitable for your needs. Spend some money now and you won’t ever need to get another one again. I’ve had mine for 14 years.

The tripod improves picture quality by keeping the camera stable. Most studio work needs a high depth of field (aperture setting) which lets in less light and results in slower shutter speeds. You want to keep your ISO low for quality so use a tripod and you don’t need to worry about slower shutter speeds causing blur.

Close-up shot of Rose

The tripod also improves quality by giving you a stable platform from which to create a good composition, especially for close up shots and tricky angles. You must learn to love your tripod! It slows you down and that is a good thing for producing quality images.

F22, 1second, ISO 100 with 100mm Macro lense

To go with your tripod a shutter release cord or remote control are essential. The problem with most remote control units is they have to be activated from the front of the camera. However, some cameras can be triggered by your phone or computer. I actually had my computer connected to the camera during my gaming shoot and activated the shutter from the computer. The images were then directly copied to the hard drive and my client could see the image immediately.

The equipment is lightweight and portable. So you can easily take it with you for on-site shooting. Especially the stand for the flash with the umbrella.

If you already have a flash and tripod then the rest of the equipment is quite affordable. I think it all totaled less than $100 for me a few years ago. If you don’t have a flash or tripod it’ll be quite a bit more. Both are useful well beyond studio shooting. I use my tripod all the time for my nature and macro photography.

Have fun with your new studio and keep shooting!

 

Cats in Windows, A lesson in back-lighting

Zeb with fill flash. Check out the great rim lighting on his fluffy tail!

Cats love windows. They can spend hours watching the world fly by or basking in the warm rays of the sun. They are so very cute and snugly and you just want to capture an image of them, but the lighting is against you. So what’s a photographer to do?

Back lighting is a tricky shooting situation, one you’ll often run into with many different subjects. The problem is that the light is behind the subject, not illuminating it, so the subject is in shadow. You would prefer light shining on your subject, but the silly cat wants to sit in the window! So we’ll look at several options you can try to capture your beautiful cat or any back lit subject.

Exposure Review

First let’s briefly review exposure. When you frame an image in the view finder, the camera averages all of the reflected or direct light in the frame. It then sets an aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get the exposure or end result. In the manual modes, you control one or all of these settings, but there are only certain combinations that will give the results you want.  If you’re a beginner, the camera will choose for you.

The exposure varies widely depending on how much of the subject you have in the frame vs how much brightly lit background you have included. The less of the bright background included, the better.

I recommend reviewing how to use exposure compensation in the owners manual if you are not savvy with your camera settings.

Now for those tips for dealing with back-lighting!

Fill Flash (Beginner & Advanced)

The simplest thing to do is pop up the flash, which gives you fill lighting. The flash lights up the shadow areas on the subject so they show up against the bright background. It’s magic! The camera automatically figures out how much light to fire from the flash, so this is a great starting point for the beginner. However, it does not allow you to control the background exposure which will vary widely from really blown out to slightly blown out depending on how bright it is.

Buggs with fill flash

If you want to control the background exposure, you need to know how to set exposure in the manual modes. Use the camera meter to set an exposure for the background and then pop up the flash. This gives you a properly exposed background and subject.

Background exposure set to +1 and fill flash

Expose for the Subject (Beginner & Advanced)

The most important part of any image is the subject. So if you have bad lighting, expose for the subject and let the background do whatever it’s going to do. There are two ways to do this, the precise method and the zen method. For precision, change the metering method to spot metering. Meter the subject and set the exposure using manual mode or exposure lock in aperture or shutter priority. This is for advanced camera users. If you’re a beginner use the zen method below.

The zen method involves bracketing several exposures with the default metering method, matrix/evaluative metering, unless you’ve changed it. Bracketing is a technique used to take multiple exposures of the same lighting situation to find the exposure you like. For instance you’ll set exposure compensation to take an image at 0, + 1 and +2, then compare them to find the one you like best.

Some cameras have a setting to do this automatically or you can manually change the exposure in the manual modes. If you’re a beginner, use your owners manual to figure out how to use exposure compensation, then the camera will automatically change settings for you.

The result is a properly exposed subject and blown out background. Try to eliminate as much background as possible and fill your frame with your subject. This decreases the amount of bright light in the frame and can help get a good exposure on your subject.

Spot metering on Oz set to +2/3, no flash. Note that background is completely washed out. Same location as image above.

Go with the silhouette! (Beginner & Advanced)

A silhouette is created when there is a lot of contrast between the subject and the background. You will underexpose, make very dark, the subject and have a properly exposed or overexposed background. Try exposing for the background and see what you get. The brighter the background the better the silhouette. The higher the contrast the better.

If you’re a beginner bracket the exposures until you get a good background exposure and a really dark almost black subject.

It’s important that the subject be recognizable if you use this technique, so profiles are best.

Oz back-lit by the setting sun

Use HDR (Advanced)

If you have a very still subject or still life, then HDR, High Dynamic Range, photography is an option. Find the exposure for the background and then find the exposure for the subject. Take both of those images and then take exposures at one stop intervals to fill in the gap between. Combine the images using an HDR program . This result usually gives you an obviously stylized HDR effect, but it’s an option and has some fun results. Check your camera to see if it has a built in  HDR feature such as Canon’s 5D Mark III.

HDR of Oz using Googles HDR Efex Pro 2

Practice each of the above methods and let me know what works best for you. You’re welcome to post some of your results on my Facebook page for comments and critique. Have fun and happy shooting!

New E-book for Beginning Photographers

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I’ve finally finished my first E-book, Getting to Know Your Digital Camera! This is the culmination of years of teaching my beginning photography classes. I wanted to create a book packed with information in a fun, easy to read and view format for new photographers.  With the help of my wonderful Graphic artist friend, Cynthia Gisiner, I believe I achieved my goal! She created a beautiful format for the book and designed a smashing cover.

I have come to love teaching and hope students find this book useful. My plan is to continue with a series of beginner, intermediate and advanced books. I also have plans to add small video clips to enhance the teaching experience. The book format can support this so I can’t wait to get started on that as well.

So a copy for yourself or as a gift for the aspiring photographer in your life.  I’ve kept the price low, only $4.99! It’s available through the Kindle store on Amazon.com. Even if you don’t have a Kindle, most any device will support the Kindle reading app. Use this link to access my book on Amazon: Getting to Know Your Digital Camera

I appreciate all of the students that have made this book possible and everyone in my life that supports what I do.

Below is the full description of the book:

Learn the basics of your digital camera in a fun, easy to read manual with plenty of practice exercises so you can get shooting! Cameras help us capture the moments of our lives; so don’t miss out on learning how to make the most of your camera. We’ll start at the beginning with a digital primer. In it we’ll demystify megapixels, file size, file formats, and types of cameras. Then we’ll address basic navigation of the camera and learn some terminology. Once we have the basics set up we’ll learn a little about how the camera works. Understanding a few key features will make photographing so much more enjoyable and then you can move onto the fun stuff – making beautiful memorable pictures.

A solid foundation in photography comes from understanding the basics of how the camera works and sees the world around us. So you’ll get a primer on exposure, light, shutter speeds, and aperture. Then I’ll teach you how to choose the proper shooting mode for the situation, get sharp images by paying attention to how much light you have, avoid unwanted colorcasts, control how bright or dark the image is, know when to use the flash and when to avoid it, and so much more. Don’t worry; I will not force you to learn full manual control of the camera, yet. If you have a desire to move on, I’ll have a book for that in my Intermediate Shots series.

This book is also great for those of you unsure what type of camera to buy and for those of you looking to upgrade. Get an overview on camera types and the variety of shooting modes and what they can do in various shooting situations.

This guide, the first in a series, will give you a solid foundation in photography. These books are drawn on 12 years of teaching photography to people like you and me. Continue on to learn about composing the image and seeing great light in my next Beginning Shots e-book, Create Beautiful Images. Want more? I plan to take you to the Intermediate and Advanced levels as well. Stay tuned!

Some testimonials from former students:

“In reflecting on earlier workshops and private lessons I took with you I realize how much you provided me with inspiration and instruction for photograph. Please continue your classes and workshops to positively influence others. As you know good teachers are rare and you are one.” Morris L.

“Fantastic and fun learning experience – as I’ve come to expect from Victoria! Love the humor!” Dana T.

“I enjoyed the class and was a true novice with my camera and I’m not so afraid of it now. “ Connie H.

For more testimonials visit www.victoriasimages.com/instruction/testimonials/index.php

Share with your friends!!!

Persistence wins the day

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Critters are notorious for vexing you. They can’t be found, they’re walking away, they’re too far away, they’re in the wrong light, you’re not ready, the list of problems goes on and on. What to do? Keep trying!

My friend has a little ornamental pond in their yard and they have a bunch of happy green frogs. I visited one evening and spied quite a few of them. Despite a good number of fairly tolerant subjects, it was still a challenge to get a good shot.

Some individuals were more shy than others. Moving off when I got too close.

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Some had a terrible background.

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Others were not interested in posing properly either. Just sitting, sitting and sitting there, sigh….

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I just kept bidding my time. Patience is not my strong point, but finally this little guy turned around, but only for a moment. I got a couple shots before he jumped off.

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And this guy had a nice little water bubble around his feet. He was my favorite of the evening.

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So keep trying. Of the 55 images I took, which is not much for me – it was getting pretty dark, I got a couple of keepers. Sometimes I come up empty handed as well. It’s the challenge of finding the right moment that makes it all worth it in the end.

 

 

Photo Cheat Sheet from Hamburger Fotospots

Trying to learn how the camera works can be daunting. I teach beginning, intermediate and advanced classes and even though there are only a few settings, the combinations of settings and variables make for a wide variety of options and results. My students often retake classes so they can continue to practice and pick up information they missed the first time around.

This cheat card from Daniel Peters at http://blog.hamburger-fotospots.de/kostenloser-download-foto-cheatcard-fuer-fotografen/ is a good basic start. It shows the basics of how ISO, aperture and shutter speed will affect the picture. Aperture affects how much of the image will be sharp based on where you focus, shutter speeds affects if the image is sharp or blurry and the ISO affects grain in the image. It’s a cool beginning tool all in one diagram.

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Moving In

Oftentimes you’ll see a cool scene but you’re unsure how to frame it. Or you’re afraid the subject may move and ruin the moment. I highly recommend starting wide and narrowing down your vision. Try different perspectives, vertical, horizontal. Start wide and move in. Move around the subject or scene and try different angles and backgrounds. Spend some time, don’t grab a quick snap and then run off, you might miss the key shot.

In this sequence I really liked the guy playing guitar. I grabbed a quick shot from a distance, but the guy in the background is quite distracting.

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As I moved in closer he didn’t notice me or wasn’t concerned and kept playing, so I got in closer and did a full frame shot of him playing.

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Then I tried a horizontal shot since that seemed like the natural composition with him squatting down and the guitar is horizontal, but I wasn’t overly fond of the trash can.

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Then I returned to what I liked in the initial image, using the sign in the image.  It provides an anchor for the guitarist and places him in the scene. Notice that I moved in and out and changed the perspective from horizontal to vertical in order to find the composition that I liked best.

Street Guitar Player

In this second sequence with the fence lizard I was afraid he’d run off. I didn’t want him to see my shadow so I started from a distance away and grabbed a quick shot.

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Then I gradually moved closer. Each time I’d grab a few more shots, never take just one, take a few to make sure you get a sharp one!

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He seemed to be tolerating me well so I got even closer.

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After shooting a bunch more I decided to try changing my angle to him. He was quite cooperative and I got a better angle with the light on his face.

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So if you see something cool, take your time and move in bit by bit, then try various angles to see if one pops out better than the others. You won’t always get lucky, but most of the time your hard work and patience will pay off!

 

Shooting Fireworks

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Firework displays are fun to watch and I can’t possibly pass up any opportunity to make some images, so here are a few tips for shooting fireworks.

1. Turn the autofocus feature off on the lens. Move the focus ring to infinity. It’s difficult for most cameras to focus accurately and quickly in the dark. So pre focus ahead of time. To get the best accuracy, autofocus the lens you will use in daylight on something far away. Then turn autofocus off and tape the focus ring with electrical tape. Now you’re all set. You’ll notice the most accurate focus reads slightly off the infinity mark.

2. Use manual mode. You’ll be adjusting the shutter speeds to get the proper exposure. I don’t use the histogram for this type of photography, I just view the image on the screen to see how it looks.

3. I set my ISO to 400 or 800 and f stop to 4 or 5.6, depending on the lens. Depth of field is fairly irrelevant for this type of shooting. White balance to Auto.

4. Use a tripod. It gets tiresome to stand and hold the camera up at an angle for very long. Most firework shows last 30-45 minutes. A tripod that is taller than you is best, you don’t have to squat down at an awkward angle to look through the viewfinder. Once you know where they are shooting you can just stand back and press the shutter button.

5. Use a remote control or trigger release cord. I prefer the trigger release better as the remote often requires you to use it from the front of the camera. That is where the sensor is. If the camera is pointed up towards the sky, it may be awkward to use a remote. The trigger release attaches to a port usually on the side of the camera. Now you can just sit back and click the trigger when a burst goes up. Once I’m set up I don’t even bother looking through the viewfinder.

6. I use a wide angle zoom lens, 16-35mm. If you’re really far away you might need a telephoto. Fireworks can be quite spread out and you want to make sure you have plenty of space in the image for them to fill up.

7. Shutter speed will vary depending on how bright the fireworks are. Typical single shot fireworks came out well with an ISO of 400, aperture of 5.6 and shutter speed of 1-2 seconds. The image below was made with those settings.

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Whereas this image of a much brighter show was shot at ISO 400, aperture 5.6 and a speed of 1/3 second.

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Both images were shot at 24mm on a tripod with a Canon 5D MarkII set to Auto White Balance.

The finale can get quite bright, so bracket your shutter speeds faster so you don’t end up with a blown out display like this:

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Get there early to get a good spot and bring a red flashlight so you can see your camera and preserve your night vision. It may take you a few shots to figure out the best focal length, and shutter speed settings. But once you’re set you can sit back and shoot away!

If you live in the Charlottesville area there is a show tonight at dark at McIntire Park celebrating the Dogwood Festival.

 

Grooming the Scene

Spring is here, time to get shooting!   I love shooting the spring ephemerals. These wildflower gems pack a lot of beauty in a tiny package. However, due to their small size there may be a lot of distractions around them. I like my subject to stand out from the background. This involves choosing a subject that has as clean a background as possible. Despite your best efforts, there are usually distracting elements around your subject. It may be another plant, bright or dark spots, color, pollen, dead leaves, anything that draws the eye of the viewer away from the subject is distracting.

Distracting elements in the image below are sheen on the leaf, the leaf of another plant in the lower left and a dead leaf on the right leaf near the bottom.

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The first problem I addressed was the sheen on the leaf. This was resolved by using a circular polarizer. This removes sheen and lets the color of the subject come through. This is why everything looks better through polarized sun glasses.

The next thing I did was recompose slightly to the right and tuck the offending leaf out of the way. The rule here is ‘Tuck don’t Pluck’. This image was taken on public land, so don’t go messing up the environment and ripping stuff up. I often times gently tuck a leaf or blade of grass out of the way. Finally I removed the dead leaf on the right leaf near the base. I have no qualms rearranging a few dead leaves.

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This image is better but there is another leaf encroaching in the lower right corner. The color of the leaf draws your eye away from the main subject.

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Here, I’ve tucked the lower right leaf out of the way. It’s looking much better, but there is a tall green grass stem sticking up on the right side intersecting the tip of the right leaf and creating a competing line with the main subject. I tucked this out of the way and WaLa!

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The final uncluttered image with no major distracting elements.

Good nature photography takes time and patience. Compose and take a shot. Then review it! Ask yourself what worked and what needs improvement. Do you have distracting elements? If so can you groom them out of the scene without tearing anything up?

Grooming your scene helps the subject to stand out. Never pluck or damage surrounding plants.

Use a tripod! As you see this took several shots to get the final one. Having the camera on a tripod eliminates the need to find the perfect spot again and helps you notice some of the distractions prior to pressing the shutter button.

This series is of a Showy Orchis that I photographed at Ivy Creek Natural Area. Other local Charlottesville areas good for photographing wildflowers are Secluded Farm at Monticello trails and Preddy Creek Natural Area. Happy Shooting!

Larger than life

Spring Peeper
Spring Peeper – 100mm Macro lens

I like to photograph almost anything in nature. This past weekend I spend some time looking for salamanders and frogs. These guys are small and low to the ground, so how do you capture them?

First off you need to get low. Down on their level. This means the proper clothing and knee protection. I always wear my rain pants so I can wallow around in the mud and wet leaves. Knee pads or a garden pad are great ideas to protect your knees – we’re not getting any younger. A couple of Ibuprofen may also be in your arsenal to help with those aches and pains of getting low!

A macro lens, extension tube or close-up filters help you focus close and make your subject bigger if you’re using a DSLR or mirror-less system. If you’re using a point and shoot camera, then switch to macro mode. This is marked with a flower usually. This mode will allow you to focus closer. Try not to use the zoom when in the this mode, unless you can’t get close enough to the subject.

A macro lens is the best as it will render your subject life size on the sensor at it’s closest focusing distance. They have wonderful quality and a wide range of f stops, often opening up to 2.8. They also make great portrait lenses so you have multiple uses for them. They usually come in 50mm, 60mm, 100mm, 180mm, and 200mm focal lengths depending on your manufacturer. I prefer the 100mm for it’s size, distance to subject and  focal length. However, this may not be in everyone’s budget.

An extension tube is a great alternative that I used for years with my 70-200mm lens until I could afford the 100mm macro. This is a hollow tube that goes between your camera and the lens. It changes the focal length of the lens so it will now focus closer and it doesn’t impact the quality of the lens you are using unlike the close-up filters.  I also used it to great effect on my 400mm lens by reducing the 11.5 foot minimum distance. Now I was able to focus on a subject out in the water that I couldn’t get real close to but was closer than 11.5′ and still make him good sized in the image.

Bull Frog - 400mm lens with  25mm extension tube
Bull Frog – 400mm lens with 25mm extension tube

The cheapest method, but also lowest quality, are close up filters. These are essentially magnifier filters that enlarge the subject. They are an economical way to get started and see if you like this type of photography.

Armed with your set up, get low and get close. This brings your subject to life! You don’t want to have to crop 75-90% of your image to see your subject.

Marbled Salamander
Marbled Salamander – 100mm macro lens