Return of the King

Return of the King

A few years back I wrote about the then-new PocketWizard Plus III, a high-end radio flash trigger that was more affordable than its predecessor. At the time I speculated that I would soon be buying some, which turned out not to be the case; I couldn’t justify the purchase so I continued to use Nikon CLS or physical sync cords to deal with off-camera strobe.

Three years later, I barely succeeded in making my oldest son’s birthday portrait because I could not get reliable flash triggering for the setup I had envisioned. In the meantime, PocketWizard had released a simpler and even more affordable trigger, the PlusX, and 2-packs of them were on sale at my retailer of choice. I decided it was time to pony up for the good stuff.

The image above is a little test with one of my kids’ Lego figures. I hooked a LumiQuest SoftBox III onto the end of my flash and brought it in real close, which kept the background dark and indistinct, and sealed off the edges with a little vignette in post. Worked like a charm. Now I just have to see if I can realize that 1600′ range they promise on the box…. 😀

The 21st-Century Geographer

The 21st-Century Geographer

My son John is into maps these days. Really into maps. As in, he’ll spend all day wandering around the world on Apple Maps if I let him. Not that I object, mind you; I have loved playing with maps ever since I can remember, and I have benefited greatly from it. John even got an atlas and a globe for his birthday this year, and a co-worker gave me a couple maps of central Germany that the boys have enjoyed trying to unfold and re-fold. When I needed an idea for John’s birthday portrait, all this mappery got me thinking about Jan Vermeer’s masterpiece from 1669, The Geographer. Let’s look at it, shall we?

The Geographer, by Jan Vermeer

If I’m doing a homage to Vermeer, I need to start with broad window light, and the window must at least be indicated in the frame. Vermeer has more shadow control than I do; he can selectively dodge or burn shadows by choosing where he paints detail. I want my shadows reasonably legible, so I’m going to put a fill light opposite the window, with a gel for a bit of warmth, as if an incandescent lamp were on somewhere across the room.

I decided to go McNally for the key light and tape a queen-size sheet to the outside of the window. Given the size of the light source, I wanted to use two strobes for even illumination, which failed when I found that I didn’t have the right kind of cords to connect all the synchronization terminals together. Some PocketWizards would have been real handy at this juncture, but alas, I didn’t have them.

My next solution was to put my SB-800 in SU-4 mode, which turns the IR receiver into a simple optical slave. I then set up my 60″ Photek Softlighter outside the window, umbrella only (no front scrim), and set the SB-800 to fire into the umbrella, which would then reflect through the window. It provided lovely quality at the expense of quantity; I had to put the SB-800 on full power and bump my camera’s ISO up.

The SB-800 would be triggered by my fill light, an SB-600 attached via sync cords to my camera, shooting at the window through an umbrella. I was working through the noon hour, and everything was fine until about 12:10, when the angle of the sun was just right to interfere with the SB-800’s IR receivers. About 20 minutes later, clouds covered the sun for 30 seconds or so, during which I shot madly and got my photograph. I then shot a second frame with more exposure for the iPad screen and composited the two in post.

Vermeer’s composition emphasizes the face of the central figure, whose expression suggests a sudden flash of insight, something so astounding that he has to grab the book in his left hand to steady himself. I suppose my composition is commentary on all the different ways we can now represent our world: the light-up globe, the iPad, the mass-produced student atlas. John holds a pair of dividers he can use on the map spread out in front of him, but the little smirk on his face asks: with all these other tools, does he really need them?

I wouldn’t say this was a fun picture to take, with all the technical glitches, but it was rewarding.



* That’s “Do-It-Yourself Over-The-Air Digital Television: Too Damn Many Three-Letter Acronyms,” if you’re keeping score at home.

Today’s post reaches back into the archives for an unusual image: a homemade TV antenna.

After the digital TV cutover in 2009, I plodded along for a while with a store-bought antenna that brought in only 2 channels, and even those had issues from time to time. While looking for something better I came across information on the Gray-Hoverman antenna, an update of an old design specifically for the UHF television band. The full antenna uses reflectors as well as aerials, but I’m lazy and didn’t want to put in the effort to properly cut and space the reflectors; thus, my antenna uses the aerials only.

Even without reflectors, it’s the best antenna I’ve ever used, easily bringing in the local stations with almost no hiccups. I thought it deserved a picture, and I hit on the idea of a little shaft of hard light from the right, modulated a bit by on-axis soft fill. Even better, by masking in a second frame I got Sheldon Cooper to keep the TV screen from being a huge expanse of nothingness.

Shooting on Velvet

It’s been a little while since I wrote about portraits, and wouldn’t you know, I have a couple recent ones.


I make at least one portrait of my children every year, as close to their birthdays as possible. “As close as possible” was almost three weeks afterward this year for my older son, pictured above, because of paternal inertia. The delay had its benefits, though; I was able to mentally discard several unnecessarily complex ideas in favor of something simple and attractive. A secondary goal was to create something that would look good both in monochrome and color.

We have here a variation on my favorite two-light setup, with a large soft key (the 60″ Photek Softlighter) balanced by a harder separation light, with a pure black background. The separation light is warmed both with a 1/4 CTS gel and by setting flash white balance rather than daylight. The key light’s color is unmodified.

Normally, I use a bare speedlight for separation, but this time I wanted a slightly softer edge to the separation transfer, so I strapped a LumiQuest SoftBox III to the front of my strobe. I’m extremely pleased with the result; so pleased, in fact, that I’m inclined to use the SoftBox in preference to a bare strobe from here on out, unless I absolutely need the harder edge.

Really, Now

My younger son wanted in on the action too, of course. I made things easier for both of them by using gaffer’s tape to mark where they should stand on the floor, something which I’ve never done before but should have been doing all along.

The background is a piece of black velvet curtain which I bought from a local hobby store, attached to and draped over a tall bookshelf. Since it’s supposed to be pure, textureless black, I was able to push the contrast a little harder in these images than I would have otherwise, resulting in a palette of tones I really like. I haven’t shared the monochrome versions in deference to my mother, who prefers color portraits of her grandsons, but the B&W conversion is every bit as pretty as the originals.

Two Portraits

I don’t do nearly as many portraits with added light as I used to, which means I’m not as fluent as I’d like and it takes me longer to set things up when the mood strikes. Part of that is aesthetic, too; I like to change the color of my lights, and finding the right look may take a bit of thought. Here are two relatively recent portraits with added light.

Deadly Cute

I was flabbergasted when my son not only let his face be painted at a carnival, but enjoyed it. A picture had to be taken. By the time we got home, my back yard was in full twilight shade, and I seized upon a warm/cool color contrast for the image. The key light was diffused with a shoot-through umbrella and had its color shifted with a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel. Temperature and mood are inverses of each other, of course: blue is high temperature but “cool” in mood, while orange is low temperature but “warm” in mood. By using the CTO and setting a manual white balance, I could warm the light on my son while shifting the ambient to a pleasing blue, suggestive of the time of day.


For Christmas, my sister-in-law had given my wife a hairstyling device to ease the production of hair buns, and when she tried it out one morning her silhouette screamed “this needs a mantilla.”

Here we see a slight modification of my favorite color portrait look: low-saturation green fill with a hard warm key. As previously discussed, greening up the fill light (1/2 Plusgreen, in this case) prevents the shadowed skin from going magenta, while a warm key (1/4 Color Temperature Straw, a less-red version of CTO) establishes a reference skin tone that is subconsciously applied to the shadow areas as well. In this image, the color combination is also evocative of older color negative film, an appropriate choice for the subject as attired.

I have not yet moved beyond the “bag of tricks” method for controlling color in my portraits. It’s OK for now, but I want to develop more mastery over the medium, so as to let the nature of the subject determine what colors should be used.

Growing Up

Yesterday I could hold him in one arm, with room to spare, and now he’s off to school….

First Day

I had grandiose ideas for this picture involving a warm key, a yellowish rim, and a purple accent on the background (yellow and purple being the school’s colors). That would have required free time to figure out the lights on the night before his first day of school, and all you experienced parents know how well that went. The morning was a little overcast, so the ambient was easy to control, and the 60″ Softlighter made lovely light for a simple full-length portrait. John was extremely cooperative, too; we were done in less than 5 minutes.

Simple is good, especially when your emotions are running riot.

Getting It Wrong, Getting It Right

Not long after I started this blog, I said this about taking pictures of my kids:

Kids take great snapshots, too, but can be the ultimate in frustration when you want a more posed or formal picture.

The limiting factor, of course, is their attention span. Making adults sit idle while you dink around with equipment irritates them and makes them less likely to want your services in future, but making little kids sit idle is the utter ruin of a photo session. Sometimes, though, when you are least worthy of it, you are given great mercy.

A Boy Of Many Talents

By all rights, I ought not have this portrait of my son John. I did everything wrong that I possibly could: I started work too late in the evening, I waffled on where I wanted to take his picture (library…no, bed…no, library…no, bed…), I dinked about with my equipment for almost a half-hour before setting him in position, I couldn’t figure out how I wanted to use my lights. I couldn’t even figure out what focal length I wanted, although the 50mm was in fact perfect for the job. Through all the chaos, John was patient and cooperative, plus he gave me the perfect expression on his face. With a little editing in the GIMP, I have a portrait I rather like, and so does he.

Lessons hopefully learned. I can’t count on such a performance again.

Soft and Smooth

I have long had my eye on the Photek Softlighter, a versatile soft light modifier very often used by David Hobby. My journey into softer light started with a pair of 45″ shoot-through umbrellas, like most of David’s readers, and while they do the job, they lack controllability. To quote the master, “an umbrella spews out light like a frat boy puking at 2:30am after a party.” Conversely, the Softlighter is quite controllable; when using it either as a reflective umbrella or a round softbox, it confines your light to the direction you point it.

It took a while to convert my yearning into acquisition; in July of this year I finally ordered the 60″ Softlighter and tried it out:


I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Softlighter eats less light than my umbrellas. I didn’t measure it, but my rough estimate would be that it has at least a 2/3 stop advantage, which means I get more flash pops and shorter recycle times from one set of batteries. Awesome.


As expected, it’s a superb key light, but it works equally well for on-axis fill, as in this portrait of my wife. I’m glad I picked the 60″ size; the next size larger would be too unwieldy but the next smaller wouldn’t have enough surface area for the broad even light I want.

I still have my old umbrellas, but since getting the Softlighter I haven’t used them once. Whether you use single speedlights, ganged speedlights, or studio strobes, this is a superb modifier, and at $100 for the 60″ version it’s a prodigious value compared to the competition. I highly recommend it.

Drinking Remembrance

I wanted to scan and publish a picture of my dad when he was in the Air Force as my tribute for Memorial Day, but that was impossible for technical reasons. Instead, here’s a drink I raised this evening to my dad, my great-uncle, and everyone else who has served the United States in uniform:


The drink is my variant of one of the few decent blue tropicals: tequila, lime, orgeat, maraschino, Cointreau, and a drop of blue food dye. The light is an interesting mix I’ve never tried before: tungsten ambient, with an ungelled flash held by my wife to make the glass glow a little bit, processed with tungsten white balance. The ungelled flash was a deliberate choice, as I knew the tungsten white balance would render it bluish — perfect for emphasizing the color of the cocktail.

Spooky Flashes

We live in a neighborhood that’s quite friendly for trick-or-treating, and we have two boys who love dressing up, so Halloween is a big deal in our house. Getting them in their costumes on Halloween night is easy; getting nice pictures is more difficult when excitement, adventure, and candy are beckoning, and it was not until the end of November last year that I could get some costume portraits.

I had a complex three-light idea in mind:

  1. Blue (CTB) fill, either bounced off the ceiling or through an umbrella on-axis.
  2. Snooted ungelled light for the face.
  3. Orange candy basket with a well-diffused light inside (dome + printer paper), as both a compositional element and a neat little accent.

With squirmy kids, the only way to make 2) work was to be my own VAL (Voice-Activated Lightstand), with my camera on a tripod, triggered by a wireless remote.

Johnny The Tank Engine

Leading off we have Thomas Johnny the Tank Engine. John wasn’t really into giving me a good expression that evening. Note how the raw (white) spill from the hole in the top of the pumpkin becomes a little accent on his hat and shoulder. Totally unplanned but quite nice.

Sith In Training

Darth Joey is batting cleanup. To fit the composition he needed to stand on something, so my wife used a black cloth to cover a stepstool. It also served the secondary but essential function of keeping him from wandering all about the room. 🙂 I got many fewer shots of Joey than I did of John, but by way of compensation I got this fabulous expression.

I think my idea here was sound, although I goofed the implementation in two ways. First, I should have kept or used an exposure without one of the boys to composite out the shadow/spill of the snooted face light on the wall and floor behind. Second, the fill light needed to be brighter by about a stop. As it was, I had to use Lightroom’s Shadows slider almost at maximum, which had the unfortunate effect of exaggerating some very bright noisy pixels in the shadows of Joey’s costume. It’s hard to see except at 100%, but it wouldn’t be there if I had gotten the exposure right the first time around. As many wise men have said, never do in post what you can do in camera.