A Family Portrait with Uncooperative Children
Also in this issue:
- Flash Exposure Accuracy with the A77 and A65
- A Pitch for a Cable Show
- Seminars for 2012
- Other Stuff
The above shot was probably the most difficult family portrait I've ever had to shoot. Part of the problem is I'm in the shot, but the significantly bigger problem is that there are three grandchildren in the picture, two of whom don't know anything about sitting still or posing, and the third absolutely, positively refuses to pose or even smile for the camera. And there was no photographer on hand to provide a distraction and shoot at the decisive moment when everyone's looking. What to do?
Mind you, all three have grown up in front of the camera, are used to it and really enjoy seeing themselves immediately. But despite that, it's next to impossible to get a portrait of the oldest one. Take the classic shot below, for example. I had set up my wireless flash (with softbox) on the right, set my ambient exposure so it would be about two stops underexposed (gives a very classic look to dramatic light without it being pure black), and put the stool right where the good light was. Well, to him everything's a game. He might sit on the stool but the minute I pick up the camera he'll run away. He'll sit anywhere but where the good light was. He'd give anything but a natural smile. (Click on the thumbnails for some outtakes. :-) ) He's a challenge indeed. I took about 30 shots before I got this "good" one.
And getting a shot of all three of them together? Forget about it! I've tried. I've tried in the studio. I've tried out in the backyard. I could never get more than one to look good (or even face the camera) at any given time. I've tried flashing lights, an occasional whistle, and a parent standing behind the camera with distractions. I could show you a book full of bad shots.
Then last week a miracle happened: I managed to get ONE great shot of all three of them looking natural, happy, facing the camera, and with decent fill light using the A65's pop-up flash!
So here I was, everyone was together and available for a family portrait. The kids had all had their naps and were in a good mood (for the time being), we were all dressed to match, I had scouted out a good shady place to shoot and I only had about a 15 minute window to get the shot before someone got too fussy or the fog started to roll in. It might be months before everyone would be together again. Oh, and the oldest grandchild was in a poor mood and wanted nothing to do with it. No stress, right?
So I set everything up: A900, Aperture Priority mode at f/7.1, Minolta 80-200 f/2.8 G lens, Exposure Compensation -0.3, 58 flash, tripod, wired cable release, ISO 200, RAW + JPG mode. My strategy was to run to the cable release (which wasn't long enough to reach the group), press the button (initiating a 10-second self-timer), run back in place, and do this about 10 times to give myself something to work with. (An infrared wireless remote would not have worked in this bright environment.) I took one shot which came out decent but the young 'uns faces were pointed in random, non-camera directions.
Then my wife had a brilliant idea: "Why don't you just use the remote and put the camera into continuous shooting mode?" She had seen me do this countless times when trying to photograph lightning. Not a bad idea, although I don't think I've ever did it with a flash before. The 58 might overheat if I run it full blast for too long.
Turns out it was a GREAT idea, since the kids started to stare intently at the flash that kept going off in machine-gun mode. Then they thought it was funny and started to smile. And their heads actually stayed relatively still for most of of these shots, which would make things easier later on. 119 pictures later I figured we had enough to work with and stopped it. Neither the 58 nor the A900 overheated. :-)
Three hours and a sushi dinner later (hey, we don't get together all that often!) I was back at my computer and had a close look at the results. It turns out I had one good face for everybody, but not all in one shot. (This won't be a straight-from-the-camera portrait as I had done back in 2009!) So I used the time-honored face replacement technique which I demonstrated in an earlier blog. and ended up replacing five of the 9 faces. Voila! Click on the image below to see an animated .gif of the faces before and after.
|Click to see before and after faces that were replaced.|
"A900? Why didn't you take that family portrait with the A77?", I hear you ask.
The official reason was I was using my 80-200 f/2.8 Minolta G lens for this shot, and in order to take that shot with the A77 I'd have to have the camera further away because of the 1.5x crop factor. That would mean the flash would be working harder and/or be less effective, and I wanted to get the best light I could.
But there's another, less official reason. I'm still not comfortable with the A77's flash exposure algorithms. (The A65 too.) Both cameras tend to overexpose the subject by about one stop compared to all previous cameras, regardless of the flash being used. It happens weather I'm using the pop-up flash, the 58, or 56 flashes. It happens indoors and outdoors, bounced or not, with the electronic first curtain shutter feature enabled or disabled, ADI or TTL. Firmware version 1.03 AND 1.04. (It's frustrating, I tell you!)
Here are some controlled studio test shots using the pop-up flash, the 58 flash mounted on the hot shoe, and the 56 flash set off wirelessly. The first row is the A77, the second row is the A65, and the third row is the A55 (but the last row could have been any other Sony or Minolta camera I own). See the difference?
The problem doesn't always happen. One of the first tests I did was to shoot a grey card with multiple cameras (and with multiple white balances, to test for a possible different issue that turned out to not be an issue):
Here I'm comparing an A700, A900, A55, A65, and A77 - all had perfectly consistent flash exposures. (The only surprise there was the A55, 65, and 77 exposed the ambient (left column) and flash (right three columns) differently. But the flash shots were all consistent!)
Wait, it gets worse. Out of the box the flash exposure accuracy can be all over the map. (See more examples below.) The variation amongst these shots (all with the same settings, all taken seconds apart) is much wider than what should be acceptable.
Since it happens across cameras and across flashes I'm tempted to say it's a firmware problem, but a quick check with the Sony DSLR Forum on dpreview revealed that while some people shared this problem in a big way, others had perfectly exposed and consistent flash exposures at all times. (Scholarly comment: "Hmmmph!")
So while I'm not sure what the root of the problem could be, I have found a solution. (Mostly.) When I set the Flash Exposure Compensation to -1.0 or -1.3, the flash exposures match what the previous cameras produce (hence it behaves the way I expect it to), plus the large deviations in flash exposures goes away almost completely. I can now shoot important events with confidence. But on the day of the family portrait, my comfort level wasn't as high, and I didn't want to take any risks on such an important shot.
I remember when the Minolta 7D first came out and they had a similar problem with flash accuracy. It had something to do with the fixed amount of output for the pre-flash not being calibrated with enough precision for digital. The solution was to send the camera and flash back to the factory to have them calibrated to each other. And as soon as my book for the A65 and A77 is finished (and I'm on track to be done by the end of January - let me know if you'd like to be notified) I'll be contacting Sony repair in Laredo, Texas and seeing if they'll even acknowledge the problem.
If any of you ever thought I was a Fanboy / Paid Mouthpiece / Shill for Sony, and/or I had inside contacts within the organization, this post should dispell that notion (and will probably also prevent any future Sony relationships from forming! :-) )
A Pitch for a Cable Show
Does anyone know of a production company looking for killer content? I have a great, low-budget yet highly entertaining idea for a TV/Cable/New Media outlet.
Tony Phillips (tonyphillips.org) and I have aspirations for doing a cable show on travel photography, but with a twist. In addition to the usual travel locations and adventures, we each have to take great images using the crappiest cameras we can find. Disposable cameras, Lomography, Holgas, you name it. This means (here comes the theme) we have to rely on great light and composition, which are far more important than expensive cameras. Adventure, intrigue, and education (with a little "Top Gear" attitude thrown in) all in 30 minutes!
Can't pull this off on my own, but the two of us have great on-camera chemistry and the show would be highly entertaining indeed. Let me know if you have any industry contacts that can help develop this idea properly.
Seminars for 2012
As mentioned last month, we're cutting back to doing only four seminars this year. Here's what the schedule looks like:
Currently Scheduled Seminars:
|Copenhagen||Seminar April 21-22, 2012 |
(There will also be a Field Workshop and a separate lecture on my days as a NASA engineer)
| Learn more about Day 1 |
Learn more about Day 2
Learn more about the Refresher Course
Learn more about the Field Workshop
Learn more about the NASA lecture
|Santa Monica, California||Sometime in June, 2012||Click here to register interest|
|Durango, Colorado||Lecture Thursday night, July 12th |
Seminar July 14-15
Field Workshop July 21-22
|Click here to register interest|
|London||September, 2012 - University of Sussex||Click here to register interest|
- I recently pushed out updates to the NEX 3/C3/5/5N ebook. You should have been notified of the free update. Those of you who purchased the printed version of that book and registered your purchase with me are entitled to a free .pdf file as well. If you didn't get the notifications, please forward your purchase receipt to me and I'll provide the updated .pdf file to you, too.
- Updates to the Spanish version of the Alpha 33 / 35 / 55 ebook were pushed out as well. Same rules as above - let me know if you didn't get the updated version.
- The Alpha 65 and 77 ebook will be out by the end of January. If you send me an email I'll let you know the very day it's released.
- Next month's blog post will be highly unusual. :-)
Yours truly, Gary Friedman