Gear and such.

I'm doing two things in 2018.

  1. Trying to improve my lighting knowledge.
  2. Doing so with stuff I already have.
I've spent countless hours reading and watching gear reviews and I've slowly, thanks to my cognitive impairment, begun to realize that none of those do anything to improve skills, and they do a lot to convince me that I need to spend money. Instead of wasting my time feeling unsatisfied with my gear, I've decided to spend that time finding inspiration and learning to create things I'm happy with.

Shoot through umbrella I got this at Calumet in Philadelphia before they closed all their stores. It came as a kit with an umbrella, a reflective umbrella cover, a light stand, and an umbrella bracket with an adjustable coldshoe. It's nice enough.  The umbrella is ultra lightweight and therefore pretty fragile.  The stand is decent. Sturdy and very tall, but with no cushioning, so you need to be sure to tighten it well.

ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Flash Grid This is just a universal sleeve that fits a speetlight, and a holder for honeycomb grids.  It comes with two 45˚ and 25˚ grid disks that you can use independently, or combined to yield a 16˚ spot.  It gives you a round spot with smooth edge fall off.

ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBender Reflector with Diffusion Panel Essentially a white that mounts to your speedlight. The thing that makes it cool is that it has flexible rods embedded in it that allows you to bend it to any shape you want and it will stay.  It also has a diffusion panel that attaches with velcro to soften the output, like a tiny softbox.

FStoppers FlashDisc Tiny circular diffuser that slips onto a speedlight to turn it into a 12" round softbox. One side of this disk is translucent diffusion material, and the other side is tri-color opaque vinyl, white, gray, and black.  I'm assuming the back could be used for setting white balance, but I don't actually know that its panels are pure white, pure black, and 18% gray.  It folds up into a small pouch (included) that would easily fit in your pocket if your pants aren't too tight.
It's really convenient and requires only a couple seconds to set up.  If the speedlight you're using is a big one you may struggle a little getting the elastic cuff over the flash.  The only downside is the price.  I got four of them for $100 when they first announced it a few years ago, and gave three away as gifts.  The current price is $49.99 and I think that's way too high.  I like FStoppers, and I would prefer to buy theirs, but not at four times the price of the imitations from China.

Octabox 80cm with diffusion panel and egg crate grid.
This thing opens like an umbrella and has a deep parabolic shape.  It's nicer and more durable than my shoot through umbrellas, because the parabolic shape requires that the bows flex more, so they're some kind of composite and they don't kink like the cheap metal ones in the umbrellas.
I absolutely do NOT recommend this thing because it's an inherently flawed design.  The light stand passes through an opening in the bottom of the umbrella, and then you pass the center rod through the umbrella holder on the stand.  All that is fine, however, the diameter is pretty small, so when you mount the speedlight in the coldshoe of the bracket, it is so high above center that you can't avoid a hot spot in the upper portion of the softbox.  Also, you want the light as far from the back of the parabola as possible to maximize spread, and you achieve that by having the stand as close to the end of the center rod as you can.  Unfortunately when you do this you can't tilt the umbrella so that it points downward due to the size and location of the zippered opening.
If you want something like this, get one with a Bowens mount, double diffusion, and a grid.  That way you can use it with a studio strobe or with a speedlight in a Bowens mount adapter.

365 2018 January Notes

A few years ago I did a 365 project, and I sorta finished it, but not really. I missed some days, and there were days that I'd have to struggle to find a photo to post. Occasionally I'd just stick my hand out the sunroof to snap a picture of the sunset while crossing a bridge. I just wasn't trying very hard, wasn't learning anything, and wasn't improving.

This project is meant to be harder. I need 365 people, and I have to schedule, plan, interact and listen, and lug around a bunch of stuff. Oh, and keep my batteries charged.

The rules I've made for myself are pretty simple:

  1. One photo every day. I can't shoot a bunch on a day and then publish them in the future.
  2. The exception to rule number one is that I may take a drive on a weekend and photograph two people, one for Saturday and one for Sunday.
  3. With very rare exception they will all feature off camera flash.

1/1/18 Me first. Entering the new year looking every bit my age.
I was torn one whether I should take a self portrait on the first or the last day. I opted to do so on the first because it was so could outside that I didn't want to leave the house. It's taken with a ring flash, and triggered via wifi from my phone. I struggled with focus a bit because I had the room very dark so that the lights on the christmas tree would show up.

Me. Looking like I feel.

My glasses are in that position because when they're in their proper place the reflect the ring flash.

1/2/18 Brandon. Son, young adult, concert buddy. Just grasping to control.
Quick two light set up of my son holding a game controller. Ring flash on the camera, and a gridded speedlight behind him to one side. It's about impossible to avoid reflection on glasses with the ring flash. In this case I kinda like it, just because it's almost like the reflection of a monitor.

1/3/18 Logan. Lively, laughing Lilliputian.
We were expecting snow, and Logan's boots were at my house, so I dropped them off and then enlisted him as the portrait of the day (mainly because his parents weren't playing along). I don't know if this is typical of four year olds, but he doesn't stand still for long, and even when he is standing still I believe that he vibrates. I have very few photos of him in focus. Today was no different and I only had time to take two before he ran off. The first was this,

Logan

which is a perfectly fine picture of a kid, but I think the second better captures his true self.

1/4/18 Tricia. Reader. Bookworm. Bibliophile. Librarian.
It snowed most of the day on the fourth, and I live on a street that usually doesn't get plowed. I really wanted a shot at sunset, in the middle of the snow-covered road, with the string of street lights disappearing in the background.  I went out and set up two light stands.  One for a reflective umbrella key light, and another for a gridded speedlight rim light. Because it was breezy, I packed the bases of the stands into the deep snow on the side of the road to keep them from blowing over. 
My wife came outside, stood where I asked her to, and just as I was about to take the first test shot, she gasped at the falling light stand that I couldn't see through the viewfinder.  The flash was fine but the umbrella was pretty badly bent, and while I straightened the bows, she went to get our son to hold the stand for me.
By now the sun had set and in the dark the camera was struggling to focus, and as we were fiddling with a phone flash light for focus assist, the umbrella blew out of the bracket and just kept going.  That's when my tantrum began and we moved indoors.  She talked me down, and the final image is a much more representative of her than one involving snow.

1/5/18 Makenzie. Very pale. Very quiet. Zuko's nemesis.
This was a quick and uneventful shot.  There is a gridded strobe behind her, aimed at the curtain, and a ring flash on the camera.  The only work for me was adjusting flash output. I did learn that longer focal lengths don't really take advantage of the benefits of a ring flash.  This is shot a little wider, and a little closer than the previous two that used that light, and I like the catch lights and highlight rolloff much better in this image than in the others.

1/6/18 Linda. Music fan. Confidante. Teetotaler.
Linda's defining characteristic is that she loves Springsteen, so I wanted some evidence of that in her portrait. The shelf behind her is the shrine that holds part of her collection.
There is a small octobox with the grid on her left, a large white reflector to her right, and a gridded strobe in front and to her right, aimed at her face. The octobox wasn't aimed in her direction at all, just straight across the frame so that the light was feathered across her, then reflected back.  That's the reason the hand holding the glass is over exposed. I also had to apply a gradient filter to reduce the exposure in the foreground. Here it is uncropped, and without the foreground gradient. 

Linda - Complete wtih light issues.

If I try this setup again, I'll raise that light higher.

1/7/18 Maribeth. Sister, mom, middle child. Beer lover. Blackberry holdout.
When I first started playing with flash I realized that, when shooting indoors, it's possible to eliminate all ambient light and control everything with strobes. I've found that it's really hard to get something natural looking when doing this.  Often you get a look like a spotlight on a stage, so part of this project is to learn to make natural looking lighting.
There is a shoot through umbrella three for four feet to her left, and a gridded speedlight about 6 feet in front of her and to her right.  Both of them are visible in the catchlights.  The idea was to set the power of the umbrella flash to slightly underexpose the her, and dramatically underexpose the background, and then have the grid provide a spotlight to bring the exposure up on her face.
It kind of works, I think. Umbrellas do such a good job of spreading light that I think they're better suited to shooting groups than individuals.  

1/8/18 Chloe. Neighbor and project savior.
I had no one lined up to shoot, so I asked a stranger.  Granted, she lives next door to me, but only recently moved in and I'm one of those terrible (or awesome, depending on your perspective) neighbors who doesn't know anyone in my neighborhood.
It was sleeting and the road was a sheet of ice, and I was so busy not slipping and falling that I forgot to bring the tiny, round flash diffuser that I like to use for quick shots.  I did have the ring flash with me so I just decided to use that, but not mounted to the camera.  
Because of the layout of the house, and the orientation of this shot, I was unable to hold the flash in my left hand and shoot with my right.  Chloe's mother stepped in to help and held the flash just outside the frame to the right.  She is very happy with this photo, but it's helped me realize that I definitely prefer a darker aesthetic, and this one is conspicuously brighter than anything else in the set so far.
Maybe that means I need to consider some other styles.

1/9/18 Gurjeet. QA crusader. Low altitude high-fiver.
My coworkers are probably going to pay a pretty large role in this project, as I spend so much time working that I don't have a lot left over for finding subjects and then traveling to them.  Gurjeet is the first person I asked, and she was reluctant but is so good natured that she agreed.
The background here is just a gray wall in my office.  I had her stand a few feet from it, and positioned her so that she was between the camera and a thermostat on the wall.  I held a speedlight with a small round diffuser in my left hand and the camera in my right, and fired off maybe six shots.  I don't use a flash meter so I simply adjust flash power until I like the exposure.  So far this is my favorite.

Gurjeet and Chico, with threats of violence.

1/10/18 Adam. Tallshipper, team member.
This is the same flash setup as yesterday, just a different wall behind him.  We had to adjust a little bit because there is a large picture on the wall, and it didn't want the edge of it in the photo.  The flash power was right on this time, because the only thing that I adjusted in LightRoom was the white balance. 

1/11/18 Stacey. Truth telling volunteer wrangler.
This is another use of the same round diffuser on a speedlight.  The plan was to get the lights over jeweler's row in the background. Unfortunately, when trying to get the flash close to the subject, and hold it in one hand and the camera in the other, I end up with the subject filling the frame so completely that the background is obscured. A wider lens would help with this, but then distortion becomes an issue.  This is at 50mm equivalent and there is some distortion showing already.

1/12/18 Cheyanne. Saint Kittian sadist.
I arranged to meet Cheyanne near where she lives, and since I'm always early I had a chance to plan a little.  There's a really cool building on the corner and I thought it would be a good backdrop. As a bonus, the control box for the traffic light was at just the right height to place the flash.  I chose to use a grid instead of a diffuser because I wanted to control the light, and since it wouldn't be very close to her face anyway, the light would be kind of hard either way.

Cheyanne, standing on a storm drain, fearing for her life.

Despite the plan, I ended up choosing a tighter crop showing just a small portion of that building.

1/13/14 Aly. Girl child. Dry shampoo enthusiast.
I'm exercising my rule exception.  It turns out that I encounter far fewer people on weekends, and I'm not comfortable asking a stranger if I have no other interaction.  So, two people, one day, one apartment.
There is an octobox with eggcrate grid to her left, and a big white reflector to her right.  The window light was a nice color, but was coming in at such an angle that I couldn't use it.  The background is too bright for my liking. I would have liked to move her away from the wall and pull the light back, but there were video games being played in the room, so I had very little space. 
Also, my daughter is a ham.

1/14/18 Jeremy. Nerd stuff. All of it.
This is the exact setup as above, but I changed the point of view, so the wall is farther from the subject at this angle. Jeremy is my son-in-law, and a really good sport about posing even though I don't think he feels comfortable doing it.
What he lacks in comfort in front of the camera, he makes up in colorful tattoos. If I had this shot to do over I'd add a second small reflector to add a bit of light to his face.

1/15/18 Crystelle. Organizing powerhouse. Good sport.
I kept seeing this shot in my mind every time I walk out of the main conference room at work.  I set up a gridded speedlight at the very top of a light stand (about 9' up) with the 25˚ grid in place.  That turned out to be a much too wide spot, so I added the 45˚ to get to 16˚.  There is also a second speedlight with a small round diffuser directly in front of her.  I had it on three reams of paper to get it as high as possible without showing over the cubicle wall. 
This one I will try again, and the next time I will describe my plan before I start shooting. I shot it at 200mm equivalent, and i'm probably 30 feet away, and there were people working between us, so I didn't want to shout out plans.  This shot was overexposed so I had to dial it back and pull down the highlights.
I envisioned it with her facing the camera straight on, and looking flustered and wide eyed rather than angry.  Next time there will be soft light on the front and a rim light to make her hair glow.

1/16/18 Paige. Purveyor of pick-me-ups.
The people are Starbucks have a pretty decent gig, so why wouldn't they play along.  Paige has some bright tattoos, a pierced septum and her hat has interesting texture. 

Paige

I bumped the ISO to 400 for this one.  All prior shots were taken at 200.  Unfortunately I didn't remember to dial back the flash power.  There is a speedlight with the small round diffuser to her left and slightly above her.  I just set it on a stand on top of the coffee grinder feed hopper.

Lessons so far
I expected technical lessons to emerge and they have, but the real surprise is that I'm not taking the time to apply the technical lessons due to what I guess is a form of anxiety. I need to take my time and stop making myself feel rushed. I'm so convinced that I'm inconveniencing the people around me, both my subject and bystanders, that I rush and miss things.  Time to slow down and iterate my lighting and composition.

1/17/18 Holly. Death obsessed lover of life.
It was mild in the morning, but by the time I met Holly it was in the teens.  I set up two flashes on stands. Both on her right side, one in front with a round diffuser, and one behind with no modifier. I wanted dramatic rim lighting.  Unfortunately I couldn't get the back flash to change power output, and I didn't feel motivated to figure it out given the temperature.  To get something I adjusted the output of the front flash to get something I like and we retreated to a coffee shop to defrost.
Fun fact: Holly is the source of the quote on my arm.

1/18/18 Rene. Keeping me presentable for years now.
I stopped for a haircut and asked Rene if she'd be my portrait subject when she was done.  She had someone lined up for color, so I changed lenses and got the flash ready.  This is just a strobe with a round diffuser in my left hand. I wish I had noticed the vertical blinds and asked her to move to her left before I wrapped up. For the record, this is 1/128 power, about 15 inches from her face and f/4, ISO 400.