Clients become friends in this line of work

One of the best things about working with couples at their weddings is that, after weeks or months of talking with them and getting to know what they're like and then spending one of the biggest days of their lives right next to them is that we often end up thinking of each other as friends rather than just "clients" and "our wedding photographer." Such is the case with Dave & Samantha, and Stephanie & Sam.

Dave & Samantha asked me to photograph their wedding at Ceresville Mansion in Frederick, Maryland back in May of 2006. Not only did they have a beautiful setting for their big day, but they had a rocking good time.

Dave & Samantha's ceremony was held outdoors at Ceresville Mansion.

Thoughtful speeches and then wild dancing at their wedding near Frederick, Maryland.

Stephanie was one of Samantha's bridesmaids, and when she called me in the summer of 2007 to ask about whether I could come north to her wedding I was delighted. As it happened, I was in the parking lot of Ikea when she first rang me up, and we talked for a long time.

She and Sam ended up holding their ceremony at a very pretty church in West Chester, New York, and enjoyed a lovely reception at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. This was a really fun place to photograph, and with lots of family and some crazy friends there the whole celebration was a blast.

Stephanie & Sam got married in New York, and asked me to come up for the weekend to photograph their celebration.

Stephanie & Sam are still up in Providence, but there's a chance they'll move down here to the DC area for Residency. So they were down here over the weekend and they emailed me about getting together. Once again, we were delighted to join them. We lingered in a nice Thai restaurant in Silver Spring for lunch, and then — because it's mandatory — we got some ice cream.

Stephanie tries to ensure Sam doesn't eat too much ice cream.

Listening to intense philosophical conversation during lunch.
Samantha & Dave and Stephanie & Sam and Edna & me.

It really is a great privilege for me, and frankly I'm honored, when couples enjoy my work enough to recommend me to their friends. Even better is when we have the chance to keep in touch and occasionally get together in the months and years after their weddings.

Stephanie, remember that the restaurants are going to be much better here than in Rochester. You gotta remember the important stuff as you make these life decisions.

You can see some more photos from Stephanie & Sam's wedding here.


Small inflatable softbox helps with location lighting

When I'm out in the field shooting I'm always looking for ways to lighten my load and give me the most flexibility. In the past couple years I've moved away from taking along my Norman 400b or my Lumedyne 400-watt packs and have relied more on Nikon speedlights to take care of my on-location needs. Fortunately, as both cameras and flashes have gotten better, this is easier and easier.

One thing that's helped has been the ability to mount two flashes on one stand, thanks to a jerry-rigged setup that combines the camera platform from a Bogen Magic Arm with two Stroboframe shoe mounts.

Two flashes together gives me much more flexibility and shortens recycling times.

The whole setup only cost me about 30 bucks, for the two Stroboframe mounts
and the brass 1/4-20 adaptor that threads on to the umbrella bracket screw. If you've
ever ordered a Bogen Magic Arm, you already have the camera platform.

But even though my abilities to shoot more and save my aching back have drastically improved, I still run in to the problem of how to soften up and modify the light coming from my SB-800's. As much as I like umbrellas, they have the problem of acting like a giant, flash-breaking sail whenever there's a breeze. So I'm often afraid to open my umbrellas outdoors.

I've tried a number of products, including the Lumiquest softboxes and bounce adaptors (the problem with them being size and sometimes too much rigidity) and the Harbor Digital system. Each of these also adds a lot of weight to your flash & mounting system — the Harbor Digital softbox setup weighs over a third of a pound on it's own, and I often find that I can't use my SB-800's at any of their mid-angle heights because that weight is too much for the mechanism that locks the angle stops in place. Plus that's a giant piece (or pieces) of hard plastic to stuff in my camera bag.

Thinking intently about this problem over a nice bottle of Shiraz a while back, I recalled a day many years ago when I was working on the Picture Desk at my local newspaper and saw a gaggle of photographers clustering in a scrum at some event in Italy. It might have been the collapse of the latest government, which would bring the number to 225 since World War II, or maybe the election of the latest porn star to Parliament. But the event is not important. What is important is that one of the photographers had a huge round inflatable diffuser attached to the front of his flash. This thing was probably one foot around, and looked to be strapped on to the flash somehow.

And I remember thinking, "that's flippin' BRILLIANT."

As I was editing at the time and not shooting so much I didn't do anything about it.

Now that I was a full-fledged shooter again I began to wonder if I could ever find such a thing again. Once in a while I'd look around at my local camera store, but I never quite saw it. Then on Ebay I did finally run across an inflatable softbox that was smaller than I was looking for but was pretty cheap and maybe worth trying out. They don't give you a giant surface to spread out the light, but they're small and they fit easily in the back flap of my bag or even in my pocket.

At 1.4 ounces and sporting an 8x6-inch face, I'm happy to have these in my bag.

Turns out that they're useful, but you kinda have to stack 'em up to get much softening effect out of them. Frankly, any time you get more than a couple feet away with most of the available small-flash light softeners you're really using the equivalent of a point source anyway. So unless you're using an umbrella or a full-sized softbox you're gonna get pretty hard light.

Because these are inflatable, they don't way much at all (only 1.4 ounces.) But I couldn't put them side-by side on my usual rig. Many years ago (probably about the time of that whole Italian porn star thing) I bought a light-stand or some gadget that would let me shoe-mount two flashes across from each other. This thing sat in a box for, oh, 20 years before I realized that I could use it with the inflatable softboxes.

With two softboxes side by side, you get a much larger surface area putting out light.

On my first few outings I used the two softboxes on two light stands, but as I'm always trying to carry less stuff (I'm not 20 anymore) I've tried to get it down to just one. That's where the dual-mount thingy comes in handy.

And I've also put them on separate light stands so I can place them more flexibly.

Putting two or more flashes with these puppies on one stand you can make a kind of "light bank" that then gives you a pretty big area to light from. True, the face of the softbox is only 6x8 inches, but compare that to the 2 & 1/4 by 1 & 1/8 area of an SB-800. If I've done my math right, that's 48 square inches of surface lighting you subject per softbox compared to 2.53 square inches coming from just the unmodified flash head.

The thing I love most about these is that they're super lightweight (clocking in at only 1.4 ounces) and flexible and I can fold them up (once deflated) and stash them in my jacket or a pocket of my bag. With bigger, more rigid modifiers I have to dedicate some Domke real estate to storage, and that means I can't carry as much other stuff like batteries or cords or snacks.

You can find varieties of these at B&H and other places, but I ended up getting mine off Ebay. Biggest reason? I'm cheap. I paid less than five bucks for mine, plus shipping, so they average well under ten dollars apiece. At that price, if I tear one or lose one, I can tape it up or just live with the loss because it's not as much as I'd pay for a sandwich at a restaurant. Granted, I am uncomfortable with the petro-miles cost that accompanies this purchase, but no more so than I am buying my Nikons and Fuji cameras shipped from Japan or my Russian brides, shipped frozen from St. Petersburg. (Wait.. I wasn't supposed to say that..)

See more detailed photos showing my setup and results here.


B&W noise removal technique in Lightroom

A while back I wrote about making black & white photos using Lightroom adjustments and I still use these techniques today to convert my color photos to grayscale images. At the very end of that entry I mentioned a technique for desaturating images using the Hue-Saturation-Luminance panel in the Develop module that I first learned from reading Matt Kloskowski's Lightroom Killer Tips. Instead of just clicking on the grayscale adjustment button, you go in to the HSL panel and pull the saturation back to -100 on all the color sliders. This lets you do some cool things.

Panel 3 is where the magic happens.

Frankly, I am against noise. Not that I want everything silky smooth, but when it gets in the way of content, I want it gone. So I've used Noise Ninja's plug-in for Lightroom but frankly it's a pain having to generate a new file and then re-import it in to my catalog and I'm eager for them to come up with a system where I don't have to leave the Lightroom environment. Now that I know about this next trick, I don't have to rely on outside help very much.

HSL saturation sliders pulled back, but Presence sliders still at zero. Notice the noise.

In the past couple months I discovered something about this technique that has made it much more useful to me.. Once you've pulled your Saturation sliders in the HSL panel back to -100, it turns out you can still use the Saturation and Vibrance sliders in the Presence pane to adjust your photo. One of the big benefits of this is that when you reduce the saturation, it tends to eliminate a great deal of noise. Not just color noise, but luminance noise as well. And it seems to manipulate the image in such a way that you don't get the same amount of blurring that you do when you use the Noise Reduction sliders in the Detail panel.

I play around with both sliders depending on the image, just to see what it will do. If I don't crank the Saturation slider all the way down, I can use the Vibrance slider to modify the effect further, but if Saturation is all the way to the left your Vibrance slider doesn't have any effect.

HSL Saturation sliders pulled back, and Presence Saturation slider also pulled back.
Note the difference in the amount of noise, especially in darker tones.

Now, fair warning: you will sometimes get a tonal shift when you pull this slider around. Generally I see that happening more in highlight areas, and sometime I have to go back to my Tone Curve to tweak a photo after I've applied the noise reduction. But it works so well that I find it is one of the first options I go to on many B&W photos, and it has saved a handful of them that might otherwise have been marked with the little black flag with the "x" in it.

One other little timesaver: make a preset of the the -100 settings in the HSL panel, and then you won't have to pull them all back one at a time each time you work on a photo. Click the "plus" sign by the word Presets on the left-hand panel, and then click "uncheck all." Then just click on "Saturation" in the color panel. (The "Treatment(Color)" and "Color" boxes will automatically check on when you click this. That's fine.) Name it something like "Desaturate for B&W" and you can use it any time, in any catalog you've got after that.