DIY snoot for a Hollywood effect

Over the weekend I had a wonderful wedding up in New York. I got to join Stephanie & Sam as they held their ceremony in Scarsdale and then dined and danced the night away at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.

Something I do quite often in big reception halls like this one is to put up a couple of Alien Bees (with those DIY gobos) on one side of the room to augment the ambient. This gives me the flexibility to move around just about anywhere in the room, and as long as I remember to stop down when I'm closer to the lights and open up when I'm in a far corner I'm good to go.

At this reception, Stephanie and Sam did something that is very common at weddings: after a modest first dance, they invite everyone else out on the dance floor to join them. Once this happens, it's kinda hard to visually isolate them in the crowd so that they stand out and appear to be the center of attention, because the ambient is falling pretty evenly on the whole scene.

Stephanie & Sam stand out in the crowd on the dance floor.

So this time, I tried something a little different by adding one light to the mix, focused just on them. My assistant had a speedlight on a monopod with a homemade snoot around the flash so that it would just light the couple, wrapping them with some nice rimlight that separated them out from everyone else. With a bit of careful aiming, she was able to aim the light on the bride & groom like a spotlight and I could then drop down my exposure to about two-thirds of a stop under the ambient. The result? They pop out in the crowd, making it look like their having their own little private dance. Just like the big movie stars!

It even works once the crowd gets much closer in, though you risk lighting up some of the people around your main subjects. Still, it's a technique that I'll use more in the future, always adding to my bag of lighting techniques. I made the snoot from a sheet of soft foam I bought at a craft store for about a buck. One sheet can be cut down to make 3-4 snoots, and you can get fancy with velcro to fasten them or you can just throw a rubber band around the outside when you cover your flash. Because it's soft foam, you can fold it up and stick it in your pocket or your camera bag without worrying that you're damaging something valuable, and it usually pops back in to shape nicely.

My little snoot on a monopod throws a narrow beam
of light,
and can be moved around by my assistant.

You can see my edit of images from the wedding here..


The Green Gobo

There seem to be a lot of lovers of Alien Bees out there, and I’m one of them. My Bees are reliable, durable, and best of all, inexpensive. For the price of one Dynalite or Elinchrome I can break and replace one of my Bees about three times. But I haven’t had to do that yet.

If I’m shooting a “small” job, like making a portrait of someone, I’ll generally use my SB-800’s, which I can set up on small, portable stands and use in tight spaces. Often, though, I’m using my Bees to better illuminate a large room, like at a wedding reception. If I bounce a couple of lights on just one side of a room, I get a nice soft directional bounce that I can fold in nicely with the existing ambient if I want, while still getting enough light to make a decent exposure.

By lighting only one side of a room, you create "directional bounce."

Fortunately, Paul Buff provides a lot of accessories that can be used with Alien Bees at a reasonable price, so many users will find they can do quite a bit of creative work. One of the best values, I’ve found, is the set of honeycomb grids that let you really focus and refine your light.

One issue for me with the standard reflector on the Bees, though, is that it produces a fairly wide spread (80 degrees, per the company website.) Frequently I’m placing my lights up against a wall or a corner, and I don’t necessarily want to light the wall or the corner. And of course good lighting is all about control: if you can get your light coming from exactly where you want it, the result will look more like what you wanted it to. Once in a while I found that the standard reflectors on the Bees were lighting up too much of an area that I didn’t want them to light, so I had to get me some snoots.

Here, the "spill" from the standard reflector got me in to trouble.

Alien Bees makes a snoot, but you have to mount it on another special holder first, and the combo of them costs over $100. Plus, it kinda looks like something you’d use for your next dental x-ray.

"Bite down, please, and don't move.."

Closer to home, I found myself with a surfeit of snoot possibilities, and I added to my options every time I had my morning coffee.

Using the leftover coffee cans that come from my local large grocery store chain, I’ve been able to make some inexpensive and very functional light modifiers that serve my needs perfectly. These cans are just cardboard, but are coated on the inside with a laminated metallic material (I guess so that the rich coffee bean oils won’t soak through,) and more importantly they have a metal rim with a small lip at the top that hooks neatly on to the mounting clamps on the Alien Bee head. All I had to do was use a can opener to open up the other end, and voila! Instant snoot. Well, I rinsed it out first to eliminate any remaining bean fragments. And just to make it look more, um, photographic, I slapped a quick coat of an old housepaint on the outside.

Homemade snoot in place, my spillover light is reduced to near zero

On some occasions I've found that I still get a fair amount of spill light from the end of the snoot, and that issue is solved by slipping in a piece of black construction paper to cover the inside surface. Cut it to the length of the tube, and it doesn't matter if it overlaps itself a little when it wraps around. I suppose I could worry about fastening that in with glue or tape, but it holds pretty well because of the lip.

The original reflector spreads the light more than I need in some cases.

I prefer the shade-grown dark roast, myself, for that rich, satisfying light. But you might find that a Kona, or a breakfast blend works best for your needs.

Total cost? Oh, I dunno. I was going to buy the coffee anyway, and it’s the beans that I’m paying for. And I had the black construction paper and paint around the house, so, in the end, I spent nothing for these. And I made about 5 of them in just minutes.

How’s THAT for a little green on St. Patrick’s Day?

Seeking Out Photographic Inspiration

Keys, Brussels
In the March 2008 issue of Photoshop User magazine, Katrin Eismann has a wonderful article about how important it is to go see a lot of actual prints in order to learn how to make better prints of your own special images. It's worth reading, and Photoshop User is just one of the many benefits of being a NAPP member. I find a lot of inspiration in the tools and technique tips that I read both in print and on their website. Her article has made me think a bit about how I get inspired and stimulated in my own photography, and how I keep learning all the time.

Working as a photographer and then a photo editor in the newspaper business, I was fortunate enough to be able to interact with dozens of other photographers from day to day, getting to see their work not only as a finished product (one image culled from perhaps many rolls of film) but also seeing entire takes. It really helped me to see the thinking process that other shooters went through as they took rough ideas and undefined parameters and finally, frame after frame after frame, made all the elements coalesce into a viable image. And, of course, those photographers looked through the film and prints from MY shoots and taught me a lot about how to refine my own eye. An old friend of mine used to bring his prints out fresh from the darkroom, wave them in my face and ask, "Don't you wish you could shoot pictures like that?" Sonofa.. But it did always make me want to try harder.

Cathedral and reflecting pool, Brussels

After many years of this work, I became aware of a mindset that sometimes creeps in to such groups where you end up thinking about your work in only photographic terms. It's easy to get caught up in notions of image size, noise control, layer masks and contest judges to the point where you're shooting for some perceived end rather than for yourself. It's easy to start thinking about making pictures that will please (or tease) other photographers, and in that mode you can sometimes get away from creating images that reflect your own artistic style and communicate what you want to your readers or viewers.

Edna, "Happy Face #6." Snow on picnic table, with mitten. 2005

That's why I think it's terribly important to look for inspiration in other media. Make a point to get out to museums and galleries in your area to see what's on display. That's not only a good idea for keeping up the level of culture in your area, but it may also ensure that there's a place where your art might hang someday. Living in the Washington D.C. area, I'm fortunate to have a lot of museums near me, and the wonderful thing is that most of them are free.

I.M. Pei, Art Museum, Indiana University, Bloomington

The most obvious place to turn is to painting. Painters, after all, have had to work with the same constraints that afflict photographers: rendering a three-dimensional scene in to only two dimensions. And people have been scratching and burning and splashing images on to walls and canvases for, oh, 25,000 years or more so there's a lot to choose from.

To me it is often particularly instructive to see how the early painters worked, because they didn't have as much to draw on in the way of previous experience or examples. About three years ago I was lucky enough to be in the Dordogne region of France and spent an afternoon in a chilly, damp cave looking at amazing representations of bison, deer and other animals (sorry, ne pas de photos des bison fait, or as they say in the opera shows in the Hong Kong night markets, "No Photos Make!") and it was amazing to see how subtle toning and depth were achieved by these anonymous masters. To my mind, they achieved a level of dimension that wasn't drastically improved upon until the discovery of perspective drawing in the late middle ages.

Later painters of course offer a huge range of techniques and styles that can visually stimulate the lensman (does anyone say that anymore?) I'm always amazed at the deft and assured brushwork of a Canaletto showing off the grandeur of Venice. The way his highlights are rendered with just a small dab of white oil paint, or the amazing complexity of shadows in a darkened room as shown by one of the old Dutch Masters really gives me a lot of information about the potential for getting the full range of tones from the images I make with my camera. Of course, later painters like Mondrian and De Kooning, working with only fields of pure color, can tell me a lot about how my eyes and brain are drawn to certain parts of an image. I love Charles Sheeler's paintings of a now-retro industrial world with it's graphic forms and striking juxtapositions, and of course many of his paintings are based on photos he made.

Statues in a churchyard, Copenhagen

Something I find even more challenging, and maybe even more stimulating, is to look outside of the two-dimensional world to try to find inspiration from sculpture and architecture. Here again, there are thousands of years of examples to see. Sculptors, no less than painters of photographers, have to think about composition and juxtaposition, and often had to incorporate strategies to best show off their work in the areas that they might be displayed (maybe this is off the mark, but I think of much sculpture as being commissioned to be placed in a specific spot, though that's certainly not always the case.) But even beyond what the sculptor intended, which can often only be guessed at, I try to figure out what it is I'm seeing in a given piece. Am I drawn to form, to size, to technique? Could I ever render that amazing granularity and texture of marble in a Houdin bust in an Epson print?

Modern Building, Silver Spring, Maryland

And I think that Architecture probably offers some of the greatest creative challenges, because there are so many ways that a building is used and enjoyed. It has to "work" with the surroundings, and be both a big space and a small environment: at once functional and pleasing to the aesthetic.

Taken from atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Then of course there is the story that's communicated in a given piece of art. Few photographers ever have to describe an entire epic myth in a single frame. But prior to the advent of the printing press, most people on the planet couldn't read, and thus much of the religious, political and social information was disseminated in pictures and carvings and sculpture. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I really enjoy going in all those European cathedrals because so much of the art seems to be instructional (telling bible stories) as it is purely artistic. Interestingly, I think much of it was designed to get the message across to the masses during masses that the masses couldn't understand, as they were all done in Latin for so long. To keep the peasants from getting bored, colorful stained glass pictures provided allegory and entertainment, and even for the learned monks and clergy there were little diversions to hold their focus on the church instead of more, um, secular matters. Look for wonderful small carvings
, called misericords, on the armrests of the pews of many old churches where the choir and other clergy would sit, that depict little scenes of suffering and salvation, or heroism in the service of God. We bought one from the gift shop in Westminster Cathedral; a little knight rushing off to mete justice to some deserving sinner, or perhaps, dragon.

Run, Forest, Run.

Pull away from your computer, get out and go to a museum. Instead of just talking with and reading about other photographers, befriend a glass blower or a potter or a someone who whittles, or even just a guy who will hot glue-gun a dead squirrel to a piece of driftwood. You may not like what they've produced, but from learning about these other media you'll find your photography is enhanced and you'll have more tools in your mental toolbox that you can use the next time you press the shutter button.


Wedding Photojournalist Association Contest win

Reaction to the news as it spreads across the land.

The results are in.

The Wedding Photojournalist Association holds four photography contests each year, and I've been fortunate enough to do fairly well in the last couple rounds. This is always a tough contest, with photographers competing from around the world, so it's nice to have made a few images that rose to the fore.

Even better, I made it in to the list of the top ten photographers for points won in the last quarter.

Watch out, 01. Ben Chrisman, CA-N, whoever you are. I'm coming for you.

And even though this news made me feel like having a little parade in my home, an hour later I was stuck taking out the trash.

You can see the full results from the contest here.


Speedy way to import DNG's in to Lightroom

After I finished writing that last post about speeding your workflow with the Adobe Digital Negative Converter, I realized that most of my ideas about this being true were anecdotal. That is, it SEEMED to me that it was quicker going that route but I had never really tested it. Being the good son-of-a-scientist that I am (my dad's a retired nuclear physicist) I decided to run some tests. I started with a set of standardized conditions, carefully controlled the variables, stayed up late in to the night running experiments and took careful notes of the results.

Looking at my data the next morning, I realized: I definitely shouldn't do this late at night. I could barely read my notes.

Must.. have.. coffee.

The results were startling.

It is MUCH faster to first copy your RAW image files to a hard drive on your computer and then use the Adobe Digital Negative Converter to prepare them for importing in to Lightroom, compared with just doing everything in Lightroom.

Here’s what I started with -- a 1 gigabyte SanDisk Extreme III CF card, filled to the very brim with mostly identical photos of the various tubes of caulk in my basement.

I know, there’s probably a good joke in here, but I’m going to leave it alone.

The camera I used for these was a Nikon D200.

What I wanted to end up with was:
  • A set of dng’s on one drive that I’ll use for working in Lightroom
  • A backup set of the original RAW (.nef) files on a second drive.
  • Keywords and iptc information embedded in the files (this was done in Lightroom in all cases)
I started by sticking the CF card in to my Firewire 400 reader and doing everything through the Lightroom interface. There were 63 files on the card, all of them almost identical in size. I instructed Lightroom (using the command, “Open the Pod Bay doors, Hal.”) to copy the files from the reader as DNG files to my eSATA drive and then import them in to the program.

I also instructed the program to build standard previews after import.

And I wanted it to also back up the files to a second drive.

Note that this backup set of files will NOT be converted to .dng files, but will just be a copy of the original files as they came out of your camera.

Click “Import.” Click “start” on the Ipod stopwatch. Make sure you already have some Pink Floyd cranked up, so that you can’t hear the awful sound of “Project Runway” that your wife is watching on TV.

Working with the 63 files this way took a whopping 18 minutes for the whole process. Roughly, that works out to over 17 seconds per file. If I had done a whole wedding this way with, say, 1500 files, I’d be looking at a process that takes over SEVEN HOURS. And in fact that’s been my experience in the past, doing it that way.

Then I tried it another way..

Copying the same set of files to a different folder on my backup hard drive by “dragging them” from the CF card reader to the drive took just 24 seconds.

Then I launched the Adobe DNG converter and converted the files on that backup drive to my eSATA drive, choosing Lossless Compression and Full-Size Previews (thinking that might save some time having Lightroom build the previews.)

The total time to do the conversion was 12 minutes 40 seconds, which was good. Switching to Lightroom, I chose to import the files in place from the eSATA drive and build standard previews. The import only took about 30 seconds, but it took Lightroom just about five minutes to build it’s previews. Apparently it didn’t matter much what I had done with previews in the DNG converter, as far as Lightroom was concerned. Total time: 17:26. Not a huge savings, but it doesn’t hurt. That’s 16.6 seconds per file, so it would still take almost seven hours to do a whole wedding.

At this point, I was feeling like my myth was busted.

This got me thinking, though.. If Lightroom is building it’s own previews no matter what the DNG converter is doing (and I tested this a couple different ways) then maybe I could speed up the process if I chose not to build any previews at all in the Adobe DNG converter.


The conversion of 63 files only took 3 minutes 52 seconds. Importing them in place in to Lightroom then took only 33 seconds for the import and only TWO minutes to build standard-sized previews for all the images. Total time: 6 minutes 26 seconds.

That’s 6.28 seconds per file. On a 1500-file wedding, my total time from CF card to working with the images in Lightroom would be just over 2-1/2 hours.

I’d sure like to pick up an extra 4+ hours of free time on the day after a wedding. That’s time I could spend moaning and taking Advil for my back.

For the purists out there, I should also point out that each time I did this I created a new library in Lightroom so that the program would not be simply relying on cached data to speed the process along.

And on a whim I decided to take a look at the resulting DNG files in Adobe Bridge and also in Photo Mechanic. Surprisingly, working with the files in Bridge was a satisfying experience (I generally don’t mess with Bridge, because I find it maddeningly slow) and the images loaded very rapidly. Bridge builds its own previews, and that didn’t seem to go any slower for the “no-embedded-preview” DNGs than it did for any other file.

In Photo Mechanic it was a different story. Photo Mechanic doesn’t build previews, apparently, but relies on those already embedded in the file. So when I tried to view the file individually (rather than in the contact sheet mode) the most I got was a postage stamp that got pixelated pretty quick when I tried to blow it up. But I usually use Photo Mechanic as a editing tool for files that have already been finished and delivered (like, when I’m getting ready to lose contests) rather than at the start of the process. So that’s okay. But isn’t that tiny preview cute?

My god, it’s full of stars...