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…. ­čśÇ

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.

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.

Gladdening My Lens

I developed an obsession with irises as they started blooming in May. My next-door neighbors have a lovely purple variety with yellow beards, which did nicely for a lighting/focus-stack experiment:

Gl├Ždene II

The garden outside the Krannert Art Museum boasted a giant bed of these blue-and-white beauties:


And last, but not least, we have the traditional yellow flag, which was unlucky for Isildur:

Gl├Ždene III

Next year I’ll try to get some deep red, almost brick-red blossoms a couple streets over from my house.

Found Objects

When the weather outside is frightful, and my camera is scared to venture out in it, I spend a lot of time in photographic hibernation. On rare occasions something in the house will nudge my muse out of her slumber, like this:

Still Life With Bath Toys

That duck looks hopeful; too hopeful, in fact. When one is made of soft pink plastic and is regularly dunked in the water by unruly children, there’s not much cause for hope.

My bathroom has a skylight, so soft high-key images come naturally there. For edgy light we must wander into my dining room, on the morning after making pizza from scratch:


Love that morning light, strategically filtered by the little semicircle window high in my front door.

Working Together

Janus Februarii

I had to walk under the Main Line of Mid-America one morning on the way to rescue my wife from a minor automotive emergency. We’ve seen the street art I call “Graffiti Dude” before. I was on the opposite side of the street from him this time, and the notion of pairing him with a pedestrian, framed within the overlapping arches of the viaduct, popped into my head. I had no time to wait and no camera on me that morning, but I held onto the idea until I found myself in the area again one evening, camera in hand.

A lot of dodging/burning was necessary to bring out just the right distribution of tones, but the sunset light worked much better than my original morning conception, and it prints very nicely at 17″ on my Epson 3880.

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.

Shoot Your Mom

For Mother’s Day, here’s my mom:

Mom Noir

I was testing a two-strobe setup here: one under the shade of the lamp to my mom’s right, another through an umbrella on-axis. It did not work the way I intended it to, but it turned out better than my original conception, so I’m not going to quibble. It was my mom’s idea to mime a cigarette and look all sophisticated with two stuffed cows on her lap, which created the truest portrait of her I’ve ever seen.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, my wife, and all you who are, even in the most tangential way, mothers to someone.