Wednesday, 30 March 2011

How Not to Use Studio Strobes

It’s obvious that some overseas companies rely on (bad) software that literally translates every word from their language into the closest English word, but, of course, completely out of context. It’s a good thing that this particular product I purchased online was simple enough that I didn’t need instructions, because three years later I’m still trying to decrypt the piece of paper that came with it.
It’s actually quite amusing to read, and it amazes me that they wrote so much about how to use a simple, slave-only strobe that screws into a light bulb socket. Here are some snippets, and my interpretations:

“Thank you to choose the series electronics to dodge the lamp, it is that the ideal light source taken a photograph is dodged in the various rooms that this series electronics dodges the lamp.”
INTERPRETATION: Not sure why you’d want to dodge the lamp, but they’re deeply grateful that I purchased it.

“It still possesses advanced the gleaming remote sensing device, can receive the pulse and gleams at the distant range place, thus synchronously gleaming with the signal voluntarily, the lamp colour temperature ideal is dodged to this series, and it is big to shine the angle, and ability and various soft light umbrellas and reflection of light umbrella cooperate to use in the reality is applied, but effect is better.”
INTERPRETATION: OK, so apart from being a hellishly long sentence, I get the idea that it gleams (handy for a strobe light), remotely triggers without a struggle, has a dodged (aha – matched maybe?!!) colour temperature (to what, we’re not sure) and gleams nicely (in reality) with a bounce umbrella, or not.

“The item is paid attention to:
1. Long-term whens disuse, the dump, and at a distance from one period to the electronics dodges the lamp to be charged to try to dodge several times, and can lengthen the electronics dodging life span. Leave, and is not affected with damp to be heated.”
INTERPRETATION: Methinks it can hold its charge for a long time after it’s unplugged, and is ready to be fired (oh-oh, is that what dodged means?) when screwed back into the socket. And, whatever you do, remember never to heat the damp.

It continues:
“2. Not dismantling the electronics, if the sick requests (company name withheld) repair section or this company to be engaged by special arrangement the maintenance ministry and repairs at will.”
INTERPRETATION: They have a Maintenance Ministry in their country, so if you try to take apart your sick (strobe), a school bus will pull up to your door and several heavily armed Ministry auditors, accountants and actuarials will kick your door down and throw you to the floor.

If there are any overseas manufacturers reading this, I would like them to know that in addition to being a wonderful stock and fine art photographer, I’m also a technical writer and a very good proofreader. So, please get in touch at my other web site:

Country Comforts

It's surprising how many times you glance around...and in that instant in see a perfectly framed picture.

How many of those times did you actually have a camera with you? As it happens, this is one time when I did. I was visiting a friend who lives in a typical old Ontario farm house. As I was leaving, the sunlight dapple on the table highlighting the peppers, the old-fashioned wash bowl, the Muskoka (or Adirondack) chair and the wooden screen door caught my attention.

All that was missing was a snaggle-toothed yokel sitting on the porch, picking bluegrass on his banjo.

Achtung! Dangerous Old Films

The images in this gallery were taken by my great-great uncle, Heinrich Schildknecht, an Austrian "alpine" photographer.

The 4"x5.75" negatives were given to me by his grandson when I met him in Europe several years ago. It's difficult to date them because the date that the photographer wrote on the envelope looks like it could either be 1919 or 1929. Now that I have a flatbed scanner with a transparency unit, I thought it was time to preserve them.

I remember asking his grandson whether or not he had his grandfather's complete collection of negatives. He replied "No, my grandfather's studio burned down". I'm not surprised.

To the best of my knowledge, the items he gave me are made with a cellulose nitrate base. Most articles you read about this type of film give dire warnings that they are extremely flammable. The typical advice is to copy them, then dispose of them properly.

Two of the many signs that films are made of cellulose nitrate are the tendency to curl and turn amber as they age. Have a look at the picture of my negs. They definitely exhibit these characteristics. The ones that curl the most seem to have a thicker base, while the flat ones are almost as thin as paper.

In some cases, the experts warn, the emulsion becomes sticky and gives off a toxic gas. Luckily, mine do not have this problem, although the emulsion is flaking in places.

There are several ways to test these films to determine whether or not they are cellulose nitrate, as outlined in this excellent article: I decided to try the burn test with a strip of each of the thin and thick bases.

With the fire department on speed dial, I headed outside in the snow, far from the house and lit 'em up. Yup -the thick base burned very quickly and crackled a bit like a sparkler. The thin base was a bit more sluggish, but also burned fairly quickly.

The safe assumption is that these are cellulose nitrate bases, so I'll be doing the right thing and disposing after copying. I may even wait for a fireworks celebration and have my own backyard spectacle. If a reader more knowledgeable than I has more insight into these negs, I would appreciate a comment.

Amazingly, from the timeline in this document (, Kodak introduced an acetate safety film in 1908, but continued to produce cellulose nitrates until 1951. I can't speak for other manufacturers, though, but this seems to defy common sense!

Are Point-and-Shoot Cameras Really That Good?

As someone who shoots stock images using SLRs, it may seem strange that I find it necessary to have a digital point-and-shoot in my possession.

Not so strange when you consider that the lenses, resolution and exposure modes are starting to catch up with their big, interchangeable lens cousins. Besides, sometimes a small no-fuss camera, due to its portability, is available to capture images we would otherwise miss because we left our clunkier gear at home.

But can they really compete on image quality? I decided to pit a Canon Rebel XTi SLR against a Panasonic Lumix FX500 point-and-shoot, each claiming 10.1 megapixel resolution. I shot the same image outdoors on each camera in rapid succession, so the light was consistent. The Rebel was set to record in JPEG only (instead of RAW) so that it matched the Lumix method of recording. Each was set to aperture priority and f/8. Shutter speed was 1/40th to 1/50th for each. Both were set for auto white balance.

The fundamental difference between the two cameras, of course, is the physical size of the sensor and the technologies used. The Rebel uses a CMOS sensor, while the Lumix uses a smaller CCD sensor. To be accurate, it should be noted that the Lumix creates a 10.1 megapixel image when in 4:3 mode, while in 3:2 mode (to match the Rebel's aspect ratio)the image size is actually 9 megapixels.

Examining the zoomed-in crop of each image, it's apparent that the little CCD can't compete with the larger CMOS, both in terms of sharpness in transitions from white to red, for example, and in colour saturation in general. Also, the CCD appears "grainier" amongst the blades of grass, and falls short in latitude (or dynamic range) when compared to the Rebel image.

The results may seem obvious, given the smaller size and lower cost of the p & s. So why bother?
Well, I wanted to gauge just how far apart the quality levels were. In my opinion, while the p & s is not up to pro standard, it's still amazingly good. I'm going to use it to take test shots of scenes that I might want to return to later and shoot with the SLR. Besides, how many times have we jumped in the car and wished later that we had grabbed a camera?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Bear Necessities When Shooting The Grotto

I love "magic hour". That's the time around sunrise and sunset that photographers prefer, except the getting up before-the-crack-of-stupid part.

It's not so much the early rising that bothered me on the morning that I set out well before sunrise into the Bruce Peninsula National Park. My plan was to drive to the parking lot in the Park, then walk the 15-20 minutes in near darkness through the woods to the Grotto to set up for the dawn's early light. The problem was that the night before, the proprietor of the motel unnerved me by telling me that they had trouble with roaming bears tearing through the garbage bins.

Imagine my state of mind - hurrying along in the mirk, carrying lots of equipment and constantly looking over my shoulder to see if Yogi was eyeing me for breakfast. At that time of day, even in a National Park, you are very much alone in those woods.

Arriving at the water's edge, however, I was not only relieved but enchanted. The air was perfectly still, the sky cloudless and the water crystalline. Barely a ripple on the surface, so the rocks under the surface were as clear as those on the shore.

To be at such a magical spot at magic hour is something photographers long for. And, to have such beautiful warm (and might I say cooperative) weather at the end of October in Ontario, Canada added to the serendipity.

Needless to say, I scrambled all over the Grotto with my two cameras to capture as much as possible before the sun "spoiled" the scene. Above is one of the results - an image that I think best captures the atmosphere at that special place and time.

bruce peninsula national park photos

Cheap and Cheerful Coloured Gels for the Camera-Mount Flash

Occasionally, colouring the light from your camera-mount flash can add drama to a shot without having to lug around a powered strobe head. Some flashes come with plastic snap on filters, but if they don't, here's an inexpensive and simple solution.

Gel material is available from camera stores, but you could use any coloured acetate for this. Get adhesive-backed velcro strips from a fabric store. If you haven't already got velcro attached to your flash (for mounting commercially made foldable softboxes for instance), then make sure you buy both the 'male' and 'female' halves of the velcro system. One gender goes on top and bottom of the flash head, and the other in two strips on each gel square.

For my flash, I cut the gel into 3.5" squares. This size has the benefit of fitting into a mini calendar jewel case (two gels fit into each case). My cases came from Effectuality (their part # CCM0CT). If your flash head needs more coverage than this size provides, these may not be big enough.

Just attach a gel and fire away. I like using the flash off-camera in optical slave mode so that I can use it to highlight a small area in a particular colour for a bit of drama. In the twin-lens camera shot below, my main strobe was used with an orange gel, and the flash with a blue filter off to the right provided the blue highlight.