Articles Tagged: gear

The Mirror Tip from a Corporate Photographer

Steve Foxall is a well-known commercial and corporate photographer in Dallas. He shares studio space at DCP and we often see him packing and unpacking from location jobs. Recently he was loading up one of his bags and I noticed an interesting piece of gear and asked him about it:

Once I get my subjects on the set, I found that the most important thing is to be able to show them how they look and this is where the mirror comes into play. I actually have 3 different mirrors and they all cost 99 cents from the Dollar Store. One of them has a very fancy surround on it and it’s a good ice-breaker because it reminds me of the mirror that Amy Farah Fowler would use in The Big Bang Theory.  Another one has a red surround on it and the third one has a black surround with cracked glass.

I’ve kept the cracked one for the really stiff corporate clients who are going to say “Oh, the black one is actually cracked” and wonder why I’ve kept it!  It can also break the ice. The person will tell me that they are going to break the mirror and I’ve given them a broken mirror already.  It’s basically the most important thing because they can see the position of their hair and make little corrections to it. 

The Tripod 20% Rule

I often get asked if it’s worth carrying a tripod while traveling. I’d say yes! The next question is, which one?

If you haven’t done any low light photography, then you’re missing some of the most satisfying experiences as a photographer. At the very least take a mini table top tripod with you. The best two I’ve found for DSLR and large compact cameras are both by Manfrotto. The model 709 costs about $50 and fits in a deep pocket. The step up from there is to buy a kit of the 209 legs but with the larger Manfrotto 492 Mini Ball Head. That combo is sold by B&H Camera online for about $85 and is something I never travel without. These little guys have gotten expensive over the last couple of years but B&H also carries less expensive ones made by Oben. The TT-50 is the smaller one and runs about $25. The TT-100 is the slightly larger one and runs $35. A small tripod is usable on any flat surface and good metal ones like the Manfrotto or Oben can also be pushed up against a wall or column to do vertical long exposures. If you shoot with a pocket camera you should absolutely have a tiny table top tripod with you. You can find them at camera stores and at Target and Walmart.

A tiny table top tripod from Target and the resulting shot. This allows you to drop the ISO and stay away from the high noise that compact cameras are notorious for.

If you want a larger tripod, remember to buy one that you’ll actually carry with you. There’s a whole world of tripods out there, but if you spend less than about $150 you’ll probably be replacing it sooner than later. We have found a good rule of thumb is that you should plan to spend about 20% of the cost of your camera and biggest lens on a tripod. It’s worth investing in one that you’ll keep for years. Try to find one that comes up to your standing height but is small enough to pack and light enough to carry around. Shorter people have an advantage here since the taller the tripod, the heavier and more expensive it tends to be.

Geeking out a bit with the gear plus the resulting shot. If you’re going to do night shooting Peter recommends a Petzl style headlamp with the red LED.

I’d recommend a good, light weight ball head instead of a traditional pan/tilt head. They are more compact, quicker to use and pack smaller. Also get a good quick release system. Trying to get a camera screwed off and on of a tripod will shave years off your sanity.

Remember whenever you’re shooting on a tripod turn off your vibration reduction or image stabilization. If you don’t, the pictures will be blurry. On DSLRs this is usually a dedicated switch on the lens. On mirrorless cameras it is sometimes a menu setting.

Tripods are also really helpful for panoramas. Even though long exposures weren’t required for this photo, having a panorama head with an offset plate allowed the foreground in this photo to be properly stitched.

Moldy Cameras

(This is an update and repost of an earlier article)

I have a collection of toy and cheap cameras that I started about 30 years ago. My rule for the first couple of years was that I wouldn’t spend more than a dollar. Sometimes I would find 5 or 6 at a thrift store. Then my family started looking for them. I still get a bag of garage sale cameras every Christmas from my brother.  I now have probably 500-600 cameras stashed in cardboard boxes on some industrial shelves at the studio.

For a while there has been a tiny leak in one of the concrete studio walls and I was dutifully collecting the water in a bucket. When I went to the studio yesterday during a downpour I discovered water dripping from a new place, right under the shelf that holds my collection. Turns out a trickle of water had been going into one of the boxes for the last few months. Unwrapping the cameras was gross and sad. I had to throw away about a half dozen, including a nice small wooden view camera that had fallen apart. The biggest shock was this Argus C3, which was in its original box. The box was a black, sodden, smelly mess. I’m guessing that the combination of water, darkness and the leather case made a perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew.

(Update)
When this originally happened, I set up a softbox and took some forensic photos as a document of this beautiful catastrophe. Those documentary images of moldy evidence have turned into some of my favorite photos. This is a lesson I’ve learned repeatedly, that I’m often really not qualified to judge or edit my photos at the time I take them. Time has a way of revealing the depth and meaning of a photo.

Meet Bob, the head of the studio.

This is Bob, the plastic head that hangs around the studio. We use him as a stand-in for roughing in lighting and as a focusing target in the classes and workshops. He’s pretty nice and is the least creepy of all the inexpensive mannequin heads I could find on Ebay. If you don’t believe me then try the search for yourself. Be warned; you won’t be able to un-see some of those heads once you see them. We tried having an expensive, realistic head in the studio a few years ago but it was just freaking everyone out.

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Number one reason to use a filter on your lens.

This is why you might want to have a filter on your lens! One day, at the end of a beginners workshop, one of the students had a Tamron 70-200 f2.8 zoom that was making some scary rattling noises. I gently pulled off the lens cap to reveal a shattered filter. The lens had taken a hard hit on its front edge. I carefully unscrewed the filter and the slightly bent mounting ring, pulled out the shards of glass and blew off the remaining glass powder. All was well. If the filter hadn’t been there would have likely been serious damage to the lens itself.

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Patience pays off at Volcanoes National Park.

I was in Hawaii a few weeks ago on vacation. Well, a vacation with 40 pounds of photo gear. . . .  My wife and I were blown away by Volcanoes National Park. We were told to come back around 6:30 to see the glow from the lava pit. By 7:00 it was still not much to look at and by about  7:30 it was so dark that I had to manually focus on the glow. The clouds and stars were barely visible to the eye. I tried some long exposures and got a nice surprise. This is a 2 minute exposure which turned out pretty nicely.

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one big light

My son plays tuba in a rock band that’s been practicing at the studio for the last few weeks. I thought it might be fun to shoot some pictures at one of their rehearsals. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time setting up lights and wondered what I could do to get something interesting. They were playing in front of the cyc, but the white floor is in need of a coat of paint and I didn’t want to spend time cleaning that up in Photoshop.

A raw shot from the balcony with just the overhead fluorescents on:

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I turned on a 2K (2,000 watt) tungsten light, widened the beam and just blew out the cyc wall behind them. That gave me some interesting contrast and solved the dirty floor problem since now the light is skipping off the surface of the floor instead of showing all the dirt. I did a little toning, tinting and negative clarity in Lightroom and go something we all liked.

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Playing with Fire : Works

Like most people, I love fireworks. And like all of you, I love taking pictures. So at least once a year I find myself with camera in hand, trying to capture some interesting photos of explosions in the sky. Last Saturday night my wife and I met some other couples near Lakewood County Club. I’ve been attending this little fireworks show for over a decade. There’s a street that bisects the golf course and we stake out a space early and then sit on our blanket while the mortars go off right over our heads.

I tried shooting handheld, with the camera in my lap, so I could still watch the display and enjoy my surroundings. I started out by putting the lens on manual focus and setting it on infinity so I didn’t have the problem of the camera seeking an object in a dark night sky. I played with exposure until I settled on about 1sec at f8 at 200-400 ISO. I jiggled and spun the camera during the explosions, which gave me some interesting patterns.Where it got really neat was purposefully defocusing, holding the zoom barrel in my left hand and twisting the camera body on axis, zooming in during the explosions. The result is the almost aquatic looking images toward the end (my favorites). Even defocused, at the widest end of the zoom the light trails are relatively sharp. As I zoomed in they softened. The only processing I’ve done to these images is changes in exposure, fill light and black level in Light Room to bring out some of the trails hidden in the darkness – a very good example of why shooting RAW can really help.