Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cellos and Monster Trucks

Also in this issue:
  • Seattle Seminar
  • Shooting Monster Trucks (and getting great results with the "worst" equipment)
  • Other Stuff

Light is everything in photography.  It's more important than sensor size, resolution, high ISO performance, or shooting RAW.  Just as there's no substitute for proper focusing, there's no substitute for good light.

Case in point: Have a look at this photo of a talented young cellist taken in ambient light (click on this or any other image to enlarge):

1/60th, f/5.6, ISO 1000
Even though I used an A99 and Zeiss optics for this shot, its an incredibly bland shot.  Nobody will ever say "Wow!" when they look at it.  (And shooting RAW wouldn't have helped! :-) )  Let's see if we can improve this shot by improving the light. 

1/60th, f/5.6, ISO 200
To get the shot above, I took a wireless flash and a paper diffuser and put it in the hands of an assistant, camera left. This is maybe a 3% improvement, but as you can see the flash is competing with the ambient light for your attention.  To add drama, we need to remove the ambient light.  The best way to do that is to turn off the room lights and change the shutter speed and f/stop to let in much less light (the wireless flash will do whatever it needs to compensate).  (Note that this is the very same technique I used in this blog post from a few months ago): 

1/200th, f/10, ISO 200
Getting there!  How to improve it?  Well, there are still too many visual distractions.  So we took away the white table on the left, and asked the pair of feet on the right to relocate.  I also added a 2nd wireless flash at the BACK of the cellist to add light to the entire right side of her face and arm:

That's very, very close to what I had originally envisioned!  I used photoshop to darken the background even more and end up with the final shot seen at the very top of this blog post.  

Below is a Behind-the-Scenes shot of how the flashes were setup (obviously this was taken before the pair of feet were relocated):

The flash on the left had my famous paper diffuser on the top - no fancy softbox needed.  It was intentionally angled down so no light would hit the ceiling and bounce back.  The flash on the rear had a grid on it - the same grid described in this blog post used to focus the light and minimize spill.  These lighting tools are really cheap and are always in my camera bag.

Below is a recap of the progression of the shot:


Because of all the the mishegas described in last month's blog, there's only one more seminar this year, and it will happen in Seattle, Washington the weekend of September 28-29th.  Sign up early to secure your place in what others have called the best photography seminar they've ever attended!

Australia and New Zealand are being rescheduled for early 2014; probably in February.  More info and interest registration can happen on the general Seminars page: 

Upcoming Ebooks

I'm busy working on a new book on the Sony RX-100 MK2, while Tony Phillips will be writing about another incredible camera with a huge fan base: the Fujifilm X100s.  (I say "will be" because they've been sold out for awhile and Tony's still trying to get his hands on one...)

Monster Trucks

I've never attended a monster truck rally before.  (Maybe I have a testosterone deficiency... ).  Last month I was invited to do so from the event's organizer.  And I covered it using equipment that wouldn't be anyone's first choice for this kind of event.

For starters, I left my fast telephoto lens at home (Minolta 80-200 f/2.8 - what a sweet lens!) and brought a slower Minolta 100-300 f/4.5-5.6 APO instead only because I knew it would focus on moving objects faster.  I also left my A99 at home and brought my trusty A77.  

"Why the hell would you use the A77?" I hear you ask.  "Everyone on [insert your favorite internet photography forum here] knows that the A77 is the noisiest camera Sony's ever made!  I sure hope you shot RAW and de-noisified it later!"

I didn't shoot RAW because I was planning on shooting in machine gun mode and I needed to minimize the occurrence of buffer fillup.  And I chose the A77 because it's the fastest shot-to-shot camera Sony's ever made (12 pictures per second), and unlike the A99, when I shoot at its maximum frame rate I still get 24 MP images (the A99 only shoots 10 MP images at this speed).  The A77 also is more responsive for sports photography, and the AF points are more evenly spread throughout the frame than those of the A99. 

So, let's see... noisy camera, slow lens, low light (nighttime at an outdoor sporting arena), jpg at high ISO.  A perfect storm of what a normal person would think are negative factors.  How did they come out?  Below are a few samples, and after that I'll talk about what I did to control the noise:

My Competition. :-)
  • First of all, because a dark venue will throw off the camera's exposure meter (making it want to overexpose everything), and because the overall distance between the lights and the subject was pretty constant, I set the exposure mode to Manual.
  • I set my ISO to 800 (a low setting for this environment), set my shutter speed to 1/200th of a second (should have been faster but tonight was a night of compromises), and kept my lens all the way open.  These settings underexposed the scene a tad (compared to my reference point of metering off the dirt), and this was intentional.
  • Later on I'd post-process and brighten and sharpen the shots that needed them (sharpening can make the existing noise more noticeable and so this was kept to a minimum).  

The results came out pretty good.  (Again, click on any image to enlarge).  There are two things to keep in mind when evaluating these images:

1) These pictures look great when printed!  (Pixel Peeping is NOT a valid way to evaluate image quality, no matter how tempting it is.)

2) For all of you who are getting ready to complain about this blog post and email me links to DxOMark graphs on the A77 ("facts don't lie!"), let me put this into perspective: pretty much ALL modern cameras from the major manufacturers are so good that in order to see any difference between them you have to examine them with an electron microscope.  That's not relevant in the real world.  Even the ones labeled as the "worst" performers when evaluated this way are still great cameras, and can produce great results if you know what you're doing.  And I'll nullify your complaint even further by sharing with you the image below that came across my email box, taken with a Nikon D7000 (a lower-megapixel camera of similar sensor size) by another photographer that has in my mind unacceptable noise at ISO 400:


Next month's blog will share with you all of the fun I've been having trying to get wireless flash to work on the RX-100 MK2.  (Hint: I found a way to make it work, but it's not what you think...)

Until next time...
Yours Truly, Gary Friedman


  1. Gary:
    As usual some of the very best and informative reading on the Internet. Not advertising just information. Very refreshing.


      (Anyway, thanks for the kind words! :-) )


  2. Monster truck rallys are a blast!

  3. Hi Gary, the two "bland" shots of the cellist at the top, the ISO 1000 is colder, and the ISO 200 is warmer in color. Is it correct to say with ISO changes, the color will also change, or did a setting for a color filter occur? I would take some pictures to try, but was lazy, and thought I would ask.

    1. Hi, Jim. I had the camera set to Auto White Balance, and when a flash is used it automatically goes into "Flash WB" setting, which is a little yellower than "Daylight". So that explains the difference you saw. GF

  4. Thanks for this great demonstration of the use of light--and flash. I think among some photographers there's a kind of snobbishness about using only available light, and you've shown here that you can get truly excellent results with flash if you know what you're doing.

  5. You never did tell us what you did to control noise -

    Gary Eickmeier

    1. 1) Keep the ISO low
      2) Underexpose if necessary and fix later
      3) Stop reading all those camera review websites that tell you how noisy cameras are when given unreasonable scrutiny. :-)

  6. I have the A77 and keeping the ISO to 800 or lower I get very little noise certainly not noticeable up to a 10x8 print and for larger I use canvas prints and the noise that is there all but disappears in the canvas. Just have to work with what you have got. maybe one day an A99 but for what I do it's hard to justify shelling out the bucks.

  7. Hi Garry,

    "Next month's blog will share with you all of the fun I've been having trying to get wireless flash to work on the RX-100 MK2. (Hint: I found a way to make it work, but it's not what you think...)"
    sounds very interesting to me. Can you please give me a little hint? I can't wait for a whole month anymore :-).


  8. Hi Gary,
    Thanks so much for this blog. I truly enjoy your candid responses and your expertise. I too have an A77...I do love it. It's just the noise that is irritating. Lol. I am really hoping make it to your seminar in Seattle. It's my birthday present to myself! Thanks again!

  9. Hello, I love this blog. I can follow it totally. I am getting more educated. OH we do keep missing each other. Just home from Seattle last night. Just loved the city more that 25 years ago. Lively, eclectic and alive.
    Be well.

  10. Thanks for this reminder, Gary. You taught us this technique during your workshop at the Firefighters Museum, here in Yarmouth, NS, but Ihad forgotten the details. Our Photo Club is experimenting with all sorts of artificial light sources right now; you can be sure we'll be playing with this technique soon!

  11. Thanks for all the info- just great reading and most helpful.

  12. Thanks for sharing your experiences much appreciated ! I am still enjoying my A77 and will do so for many years to come. Regards from Sweden !


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