Monday

Quick Keyboard Adjustments in Lightroom 2 Beta

Lightroom 2 Beta has been a lot of fun to play with, and I’ve actually gone a lot further than just playing with it as I’ve toned several entire weddings and corporate shoots with the program.

With each new generation of Lightroom, Adobe seems to make it smarter and faster. Even as a Beta, LR2 runs fairly quickly on my Mac G5, which seems like an ancient machine to me now that the ultra-bionic models have been out for more than a year.

One bit of fun functionality that the darned clever designers put in to LR2 was the ability to use your keyboard for some of the most common toning adjustments . I might have missed this little gem if I hadn’t read the release notes when I downloaded the program.

Now I find it’s something I use all the time.

A couple of keystrokes and I'm makin' changes.

In the DEVELOP module, when I want to pump up the Exposure or the Vibrance or any of the options from Temperature down to Saturation I can just hit the “comma” and “period” keys to move through the list to find the feature I want and then use my “plus” or “minus” keys to move the amount up or down. (I know, it’s really the “equal” key, but it’s easier for me to think of it as the “plus” key. You don’t have to press “shift.”)

When you get to the adjustment you want, a brief pop-up message will appear at the bottom of your photo to let you know what is selected. (use that as a cutline)

But if you DO press “shift,” it will move the slider in larger increments. For instance, when you normally press the “plus” key once when adjusting the Exposure, it will move the slider up to “+10.” But if you hold down the shift key, it will take you a third of a stop up to “+33.” The same works in reverse, dropping the exposure by one-third of a stop if you hold the “shift” key while pressing the “minus” key.

Another keyboard trick, this one not mentioned in the release notes: If you hold down the “option” key while you press the “plus” or “minus” keys, it will move the slider in smaller increments. Except for Black Clipping, all the various options move in sets of five or ten units. But sometimes I don’t WANT to increase the Fill Light by five entire units: I just want to nudge it along by one or two.

So when I’ve selected the Fill Light option using my “period/comma” keys, I can then hold down “Option” while I move the slider by one unit at a time.

For Temperature, which normally moves up 50 degrees Kelvin at a time, holding down the option key restricts the change to just five degrees each time you move up or down. But it’s pretty rare that I make a temperature adjustment that small. Usually I’m holding the Shift key and going up or down by 200 degrees at a whack.

All this is great and it cuts down on my trying to hold my mouse reaaaalllllly steady while I make an adjustment in one of those areas. But I’ve been really eager to be able to do the same thing with some of the other adjustments, such as in the Tone Curve, HSL/Color/Grayscale or Detail panels.

Turns out you can use your keyboard for adjustments in every option in every panel. Almost. Sort of.

Lightroom reminds you what settings you're changing.

In MOST of the other panels, all you need to do is use your mouse to click on the word describing the adjustment you want to make. For instance, under Sharpening, click on the word “Detail” and then you can use the “+/-” keys to move up or down. The same rules apply as in the Basic panel. Hold down SHIFT to make each keystroke a bigger adjustment, hold down OPTION to fine tune.

Works with six-dozen adjustments! Count 'em! I did!

The fact that you must first click on the word is why I say you can “almost” do this the same as in the Basic panel. But I do understand that you wouldn’t want to have to cycle through 72 different options each time you wanted to change one thing. (Yes, I counted them, and you can really do this with 72 different settings.) But maybe Adobe can think of a way to let you jump from panel to panel and then just make changes within each one.

One reason I’m so pleased about this functionality is that I use the stylus on my Wacom tablet quite a bit when I’m working with photos, and while that’s great for lots of uses it’s pretty hard to move a slider up just one or two units with it. So I’ve set up one of the panels on my tablet to mimic the “+/-” keys and all I have to do is tap the adjustment-word I want with the stylus before making a completely controlled adjustment.

The one panel where this DOESN’T work at all is in the drop-down area for localized adjustments and cropping. I can understand why that’s true with Crop and Red-eye or Healing & Cloning, but it would be very useful in the Retouch panel. If you decide to edit a brush stroke, it’s very difficult (nearly impossible to do accurately in some places) to use your keyboard to do so. I hope that this will be rectified in the actual release.

Use the "semicolon" key to reset the adjustment if you don't like it.

One last useful tip: If you’ve made an adjustment using your keyboard and you can’t stand the way it looks, it’s easy to reset that individual adjustment. While the adjustment is selected, just press the “semicolon” key and it will take the slider back to its default setting. For me that's easier than trying to put my mouse exactly on top of the little triangle to double-click it.

Saturday

When i-ttl flash works, and when it won't

i-ttl works here, with one flash bouncing to the left of these meeting attendees.

Now that I have a set of Radiopoppers to play with, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how ttl and i-ttl flash works with my Nikons. I’m going to assume that the criteria are roughly the same with Canon flashes and cameras, though I don’t use Canon.

Specifically, I want to do more with the techniques that I already have under my belt, and I want to add in a bunch of new stuff as well. From my own experimentation (read: screwing up pictures that would otherwise be okay) to even breaking down and re-reading my instruction manuals, I’ve come up with a few general rules that help me work and also give me a point of departure for when I want to try new stuff.

One little notation that I read in the instruction manuals for my D200 was that I-ttl flash will not work when the meter was set to “spot metering” mode. As I rarely ever spot meter anyway, except to maybe double-check a problem area in a photo, I thought, “umm, okay, I wont have to worry about that.” But it turns out that I sometimes set up my lights so that one or more of them is lighting just a small section of a photograph, maybe the equivalent of nearly the same number of pixels that might be read if I were spot metering, and it’s not infrequent in those situations that my i-ttl exposures have been off the mark.

Basically, when you’re working in i-ttl mode, your camera is doing all the metering for you when the pre-flash fires and is “deciding” how much power your remote flashes should be putting out based on what the matrix metering program tells it. Even though matrix metering is pretty fancy, I think it is largely trying to accommodate for a handful of fairly common photographic situations. For instance, it looks at about top one-third or fourth of your image area and “guesses” that this is probably the sky, so if it’s bright it lets it stay bright and doesn’t skew the entire exposure by stopping down.

Your meter understands this situation: bright sky at the top,
darker stuff below, subjects reasonably prominent in the frame.

Similarly, it’s going to assume that your main subject is going to be a pretty big blob somewhere in the lower two-thirds of the photo area, and it may take up more room than that. So it decides that’s the area you want properly exposed, and after sampling light values from a bunch of different spots it creates an exposure plan for you. If you’re shooting on one of the ‘automatic’ modes like Program or Aperature Priority it just sets the camera for you, or if you’re on Manual it tells you whether your current settings are over or under or just right.

Where does this take is, flash-wise?

In my case I really like setting people off from the background with a bit of an accent light, which is to say a light that just gives a bit of lighter definition around the edges of a subject so that they stand out from the background. This light can come from behind and above, as it often does in movies and in almost every case where you see a TV anchorperson sitting at a desk, or it can come from the side, or from directly behind on the same level with the subject. Most often them this is called a backlight, but most of the time I use it from the side. That’s how I roll.

the "accent" flash coming from the right is a little hot, working on i-ttl

Because this light is only going to expose a very small area on my subjects, it just isn’t something that can be metered accurately. Most of the time if I try to set that accenting flash to ttl, it ends up putting out waaaaaay too much light.

..that's because it is illuminating a very small area of the photo,
shown here in red, and the camera's meter just doesn't get enough information,
overall pixel-wise, to make an accurate exposure from that flash.


So I can’t really rely on those side flashes to expose properly when they're at extreme angles unless I’m shooting manually, and then I have to watch my light-to-subject distances. As people get closer to the flash, the light striking them is going to be brighter than when they’re further away. I’ve tried instructing the accenting flash unit to underexpose by a stop or two using i-ttl, but that still is a crapshoot because the camera’s just not getting enough information from the light bouncing off the subject, in most cases. In some cases you can set the flash on it’s Automatic setting (AA on SB-800’s triggered remotely) but I’ve never trusted flashes set on automatic. You don’t know what they’re looking at and they are more easily fooled by some of the common metering pitfalls (a bride in a big white shiny dress dancing with a guy in a dark black tux, for instance) than most cameras are.

This is why, for instance, in the RadioPopper manual they say you’ll have better results setting your remote flashes on manual than using them in i-ttl mode. By “better” I think they must mean “more consistent.” Your flash is always going to know what 1/4-power is, whereas your camera may have a lot of trouble picking out one little point in the picture that you’re lighting up and determining a correct i-ttl exposure.

And that is why it’s a very good idea to get to know how much light your flash puts out when you set it at the various fractions of the full manual setting. Here’s a tip: it doesn’t matter what you set the ISO at on the flash. If it’s on manual, it’s putting out the same power whether you set that at 100 or 1600. Take some test exposures at 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, and so on until you’ve become VERY familiar with them. Use a flash meter or just chimp it on your screen to see what the results are. Once you’ve figured out that your SB-800 puts out f/8 at ten feet at 1/4-power when your CAMERA (not the flash -- it’s dumb) is set on ISO 400, you can extrapolate from there what happens when you move to a higher or lower ISO on the camera. Knowing this will save your bacon again and again.

Mmmmmmmm, bacon..

When I’m shooting a wedding reception, the trend seems to be to turn the lights in the room down so that you can barely read the dials on your camera, particularly once the dinner is over and the dance floor opens. Maybe that’s so nobody sees just how awkward the dancing can be. These are the situations where I’m using multiple flash setups, and where I’ve had a lot of trial and a lot of error with i-ttl. Until I get my D3, I’m reluctant to jack up my camera’s ISO up to above 1000 so that I can shoot at faster than 1/4th-second in these situations. I’d rather face up to a lighting challenge than have to deal with a lot of sensor noise after the fact.

1/8th of a second at ISO 1000, lit with flash to brighten the main subjects.
I will shoot this slow once in a while, but don't like to do it throughout.

In what situations does i-ttl succeed?

It seems to do very well in those times where you have enough available light to be able to make a decent exposure and you can use your flash to simply complement the ambient.

flash to the right is just filling the subjects here.

And it works pretty well where it’s your main light, illuminating enough of the subject that you can get a good matrix meter reading.

the camera's meter can read a large area of the frame here
lit by flash, and can deliver a pretty accurate i-ttl exposure.


And it seems to do quite well when the subject that you’re lighting fills up a goodly part of your frame, like at least as much as 1/4th of the photo area and preferably more. That's the case with the first picture in this posting, where the light from the flash is illuminating enough of the subject area to give a proper exposure.

I'm sure I'll have many more chances to discover when and why it fails, and from that I expect to learn when I can really use it to full advantage.

Wednesday

Radiopopper Review: a first look, with some add-ons

Please note: Since writing this first posting about RadioPoppers I've have many more chances to use them and test their capabilities. Those of you wanting to know a little more about them can click on the links at right. Almost every post has something about my experience with RadioPoppers and lighting techinque. -January 2009-


Roughly ten days ago my RadioPopper Transmitter & Receiver package arrived, on a Friday evening. The next day I had a difficult wedding (logistically -- the bride and groom were great, but the conditions were tough, shooting on a historic Civil-War-era warship) and I tried the system out. Two days later I ordered more receivers, because I was so impressed at how they performed. In fact if the lazy slobs who make RadioPoppers would work on Sundays, I only wouldn’t have had to wait that long. (Just kidding. I'm sure they work really hard.)


I-ttl might have worked here, but RadioPoppers
definitely fired my flash hidden inside the booth.


There are a lot of situations where I “need” RadioPoppers. It’s not for shooting people five feet away who are making me point my camera directly at the sun. You can do that without Poppers. What I do want them for is shooting around corners, where I might have a flash in the next room or in an alley that wouldn’t fire if I was just using the regular i-ttl capabilities of my gear. Or I may be 50 yards away, trying to shoot a nice portrait at dusk under ambient conditions that change by the moment where I have to balance the flash differently as the twilight fades. Poppers let me do that Even more frequently, I might have strobes set up on stands to shoot a wedding party, and to loosen everyone up I will move in very close to shoot right in their faces (this always cracks up bridesmaids, for some reason) and once you get outside that 30-degree visibility window with normal i-ttl you’re not able to rely on the system to give you good exposures. For some of those situations I can use my Pocket Wizards, and believe me I still will rely very heavily on those in my pantheon of lighting tools.


The pantheon, minus the Bees and a couple hundred smaller accessories

One thing I should point out up front: there are a few times when the Poppers, well, failed. But it didn’t take me long to realize that they only seem to fail under the same conditions where your flashes are going to fail on their own anyway. For instance, when your batteries get really low, particularly on your “commander” unit, you’re gonna have problems with or without the Poppers. Or if you get too far away. But the nice thing is, with the Poppers, it’s pretty hard to get too far away.

I'm fairly sure regular i-ttl would NOT have worked here,
but RadioPoppers did just fine from 40 yards away.


But now I can use my Nikon (D200)and Fuji (s5) gear with the four SB-800’s I own and really take advantage of the creative possibilities of Nikon’s i-ttl and worry less about technical stuff. If you work with an assistant, as I do, one really nice feature of having RadioPoppers is that you don't have to twist the entire flash around every time your assistant chances positions in order to get the sensor to "see" the commander flash. That one problem alone caused me to miss any number of shots, and now I don't have to worry about it.

But I’ve had to do a little bit of work on my own to get everything working the way I want it, to "bend it to my will," so to speak.

Sweeeeeeeet. And the tube is more flexible than you first might think.

Here are some issues I identified right away and changed..

First off, the “residue-free” gaffer’s tape patch that was sent with the components wasn’t really working for me. Not only does it leave residue on my flashes, but it’s not really the best way to hold the fiber optic tube up to the sensor window on my SB-800s. Change the angle of your flash head to the "bounce" position, and you often put enough stress on the tube to pull the tape off the flash. On the flip side, the tape was sometimes so sticky I couldn’t even get it off the plastic bags that the RadioPoppers came in!

I used my own tape for a few hours, but that created a gooey mess as well and the bottom line is that tape just doesn’t provide a very secure hold for the tube. I didn’t want to cover up my battery compartment because I generally change batteries at least once in these speedlights when I’m shooting a wedding.

Using gaffer’s tape also creates the situation where any flash that you’ve got taped up can ONLY be used with a RadioPopper, and if you’ve only got one transmitter you have to keep switching your triggering flash (or SU-800) back and forth between bodies. But I’ve found there are plenty circumstances where your unaided i-ttl system would work and you don’t have the time to untape everything. For instance, I might have my assistant holding one flash on a monopod while we’re shooting dancing, firing on a Popper, and then in short order we’ve gone in to the next room to cut the cake, where I might be able to get by by just bouncing an on-camera flash at the wall and have my assistant’s flash fire off the visible light pulse from mine.

I know that sounds convoluted, but it’s not uncommon that I find myself shooting something 40 feet away (great for Poppers) and then suddenly have to shift to shooting something right in front of me. The last thing I want to do is fumble with shifting my flash or my SU-800 back and forth while the grandmother of the bride waits for me to appear halfway competent.

Basically, I want to use the RadioPoppers most of the time, but there are times when I want to be able to have the sensor uncovered so that I can use the flash as a regular slaved unit or use it in i-ttl mode without the Popper. Now I’ve found a way to do this, and the solution is cleaner and more versatile than the gaffer’s tape.

For some years now I’ve had a supply of wire clips that I use on my Pocket Wizards to hold their cords, which keep me from damaging the unit in case I catch it on something while I’m moving around. The little clips I order from Mouser Electronics hold like steel welds and don’t clutter up my gear with a bunch of gooey junk that looks like I tried to make it in my basement.

The tip of the fiber optic tube slides down in to the clip and hovers
just over the sensor window. This lets me use the RadioPopper

or just trigger the flash with a "commander" unit by itself.

Using the clip makes it easier to store my flash when I’m done with the. Because the tube comes down along the body of the flash, I can simply pull the other end out of the body of the Popper and either fasten it along the top of the flash or put it somewhere else, and the flash slides neatly in to one of the pockets of my bag. When I had them taped on, the tube had to be gently worked around in such a way that it didn’t catch on anything when I put it away, and most of the time that put enough stress on the tape that it pulled it off anyway.

The tube "bulb" stays put when I go vertical,
thanks to the clip, and makes storage easier.


One last modification I’ve done is to put a couple small pieces of Velcro on the sides of the transmitter so that I can more securely fasten it to either my SU-800 or my flash. Over the years I’ve knocked enough accessories off the tops and sides of my flashes that I don’t like to take chances. It’s not pretty, but I feel better about having the addition.

Ahhhh, the wonderful uses of all those
extra
little pieces of Velcro lying around.

My one frustration using these in my two outings so far is that I haven't been in situations where I can really put them to the test. Both weddings I've shot with them were outdoors, for one thing, and I only had one Popper to try on the ship. The week I ordered them, I would have loved to be able to try them out at this wedding. But as I get more time with these babies I'll be sure to let you know how they fare. I'm betting they hold up quite well.

One final thought: at one point in last weekend's wedding I noticed that my remote flashes weren't firing, and the link/power lights on the receivers were doing some sort of voodoo-induced spasm. After some seconds of panic, I realized that the battery in my transmitter was dead. The manual says that you should get 5-10 hours of transmitting time out of any given AA, so I'll probably be putting a freshly-charged NiMh in each unit before I set out every Saturday.

You can order those clips from the folks at Mouser Electronics. The part number is 561-AWC187B , and when I bought them they were about three for a buck. A pretty good deal for the kind of peace of mind I get from them.