Category Archives: Studio


Portraits and Lenses and Bears (oh my!)

Now that I have three lenses for my Nikon D800, I decided it would be fun to try them out in a “portrait” setting. Now, since I didn’t have a readily available model that would hold the same pose for a number of shots and lens swaps, I decided to use a trusty articulated teddy bear.

For my, now, annual Niece and Nephew Christmas shoot I had my new camera and my new 24-120mm f/4 Nikkor lens. This lens is a really nice, all-around, lens for travel and fun photography, but it isn’t really suited for a portrait lens. Why? It’s too slow. The f/4 constant aperture is nice, but it means that the depth of field is larger, the lighting needs to be brighter, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s a very good lens and forms the basis of my playing with my new 85mm f/1.8 G and my 105mm f/2.8 G Micro lenses. The observant will note that these two lenses were, in fact, on my Wish List¬†and are now in my hot little hands.

First, the 24-120mm shot at 85mm with an aperture of f/4:

24-120mm at 85mm and f/4

Compare the above to the 85mm f/1.8 shot at f/1.8:

85mm and f/1.8
85mm and f/1.8

Now compare with the 85mm f/1.8 shot at f/4:

85mm and f/4
85mm and f/4

Now, the 24-120mm shot at 105mm with an aperture of f/4:

24-120mm at 105mm and f/4
24-120mm at 105mm and f/4

Compare that with the 105mm f/2.8 shot at f/3 (the 105mm Micro’s maximum aperture depends on the focus distance. In this case, I was closer than 10 feet, so f/2.8 wasn’t available):

105mm and f/3
105mm and f/3

Now, the 105mm at f/4:

105mm and f/4
105mm and f/4

Now, for a slightly more useful side-by-side comparison of the above 85mm shots:

Compare at 85mm
Compare at 85mm

Unfortunately, I had a slight movement in the camera body when lens switching and the zoom focal length isn’t exact on 85mm (there’s some variance that the camera can report). At any rate, you can see the depth of field and bokeh characteristics of f/4 versus f/1.8 is dramatic. You can also see that the two lenses, at the same aperture of f/4 are pretty similar, but if you look closely at the bokeh circles, the 85mm lens is much nicer, as the 24-120mm has some fairly sharp halos in comparison, especially when scaled down as these shots are.

It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that the 85mm and 105mm prime lenses are going to produce nicer portrait shots. Perhaps I should be looking at the AF DC-Nikkor 135mm f/2D too…

Alien Bees and the Home Studio

Just this past week I ordered, and received, the DigiBee kit from Alien Bees (Paul C. Buff) with the B800 heads rather than the B400. I’ve been itching to get something like this for quite a while, especially after having bought a pretty weak “home studio” kit that came with stands (poorly made), two soft boxes, and CFL based continuous lights. That kit, set up in a standard configuration left me with a shutter speed of 1/20 at f/4 and ISO 400. Like I said, weak, but what do you expect for a couple of hundred dollars? In any case, since I was about to do a Christmas shoot of my neices and nephews, 1/20th of a second shutter speed just wasn’t going to cut it, kids just move too much, so hence I ordered the Bees.
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Catching the Elusive Water Drop

For some reason people, myself included, like water drop photographs. Catching that moment of the splash is a lot of fun (hence the proliferation of them on my site) and it’s actually not all that hard.

First, lets talk the basics of it… To catch the drop, you have to freeze that moment in time and we do that with light. In general, to make this happen, here are my basic ingredients:

1. Flash mounted off camera, with a snoot, and at about 1/16th power.

2. The camera positioned at a fairly low angle to the water surface and focused where the drops are striking (more about that in a moment).

3. Set the camera to a low ISO (I use 100 usually), an aperture of f/8 or f/9.5, and a shutter speed of about 1 second.

4. From these settings, you can probably guess that the room is going to have to be very dark, the darker the better. Why? Well that ensures that the only light being captured is the light of the flash.

5. Some sort of pan, I usually use glass bakeware but there are lots of options, to catch the water. Fill it up, preferrably to the rim with a much larger pan underneath to catch the overflow.

6. Some source for the drops suspended above the drip pan. There are a lot of options here from baggies to expensive machines with precise control. I started with baggies and used the more expensive zip lock because they didn’t result in an uncontrolled stream. Eventually I rigged my own using a watering jug for rabbits, some 1/2″ clear tubing, and a readily obtained water valve from the Home Depot. All the parts fit together nicely, were very cheap, and gave me much better control of the water than a baggy did. At some point I’ll post a DIY article on it, however, baggies are fine as well and you can use a straight pin to make a small puncture that gives a reasonable flow.

7. A light, or multi-coloured, backdrop behind the water pan. You’ll want to bounce the light from the flash off it instead of aiming directly at the water.

So, now that you have all the parts, it’s time to start shooting. First things first, get everything into position. Generally, I place the camera on a sturdy tripod a few feet from the drip pan aiming straight on and attach my cable release. The flash is then placed on another tripod about two feet away, with the snoot on, and aimed at the backdrop so that the light bounces off that and hits the water from behind. The snoot will help to keep the light focussed tightly in the area you want it.

Next, you have to focus the camera on where the drops are hitting. There are a couple of ways to do this:

1. Place a bolt in the drip pan until the drops strike it and then focus on the bolt. When satisfied, remove the bolt.

2. Place a nice, straight, object such as a ruler or a skewer, across the pan horizontally until the drops are hitting it and then focus on that where the strikes are.

I use both methods, go with what works, but bear in mind that autofocus is not going to work well and trying to manually focus without a focus aid is near impossible. Alright, now that you’re focussed, you’re ready to go… So, turn off all lights (use a flashlight to move around if you need, but turn it off when ready to start), position yourself so that you have the cable release in one hand and a finger of your other hand on the “test” button of the flash. When ready, fire the camera and then manually press the flash test button to trigger the flash.

Now, of course, you’re very unlikely to get the perfect shot the first try, so the goal here is to fire often and at will. Any time I set out to do these shots I will usually take between 200 to 600 or more pictures. Why not? I doesn’t really cost anything with digital and you’re more likely to get some wall art this way! So, don’t stint on the shutter count here.

Foamies and Photography

Foamies are basically craft paper made of foam, about 2 mm thick, that is easily cut and shaped as you need them. So, now that you know what they are, why should you care about them in photography?

Well, for the do-it-yourselfer, you should care a lot. Gear is expensive and, while it’s nice to have some of it, not a lot of us can justify the costs for a hobby. Many of us, in fact, would rather spend the cash on lenses or camera upgrades. So, one of the ways to cut your costs is to make it yourself and foamies are a great resource for that.

For example, I’ve made a snoot out of foamies and velcro tape. A snoot, by the way, is a device fitted over the flash that is used to constrain the light to a more narrow beam. In my case, I used two foamies, a black one and a white one with a sticky back.

1. Using a measuring tape, I measured the circumfrance of my flash head, added a little bit for flexibility and then cut black foamie to fit. On one edge, I put the hook part of the velcro, on the other the catch part, done so that the foamie can wrap.

2. Next, I peeled the backing off the white sticky foamie and fitted it onto the black piece for the inside. Then I just trimmed the edges.

3. Finally, I added some of the catch velcro to the far end of the snoot for attaching gels (I made a gel holder using some plastic packaging, worked rather well).

This is the result (pardon my lack of editing and white balance):

That’s not too bad considering a snoot will normally cost more than $40 CDN in the store and this cost about $5 (with lots left over). In addition, with foamies, I can make a number of snoots in various sizes and in various colours for the interior to colour the light. I can also use it as a bounce card.

You’ll notice from the above shots that the background is seamless. That too is a result of foamies, a roll to be exact. I was very happy to discover that they make rolls of this stuff about 5 feet long and 3.5 feet wide, nicely fitting onto my macro table. The texture is very good for a backdrop and, at $9.99 for the roll, I’m not too worried if something spills on it. Besides, I discovered that a little rubbing alcohol on a J-cloth cleans it up nicely. I have a couple of rolls of the white and a roll of the black. Other colours are available, but my local art store never seems to have them.

I doubt you’ll see professional photographers running around with rolls of foamies or a foamie snoot, but I’m not a pro and, if you’re looking to me for advice, you probably aren’t either. Net effect, why pay hundreds for what you can get for less than $30?

So, add foamies to your collection of DIY tricks, you won’t regret it.