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Lighting Portraits With Candlelight

lighting by candlelight

Valentine's Day is a good opportunity to experiment with lighting by candlelight - by Chantel Beam Photography via Flickr

Valentine’s Day presents an opportunity to experiment with a really old-fashioned light source; it’s one of those days a lot of people choose candlelight.

There’s something visceral about fire in the human psyche and candles provide a single, pure pinpoint of fire that is both warm and intimate at the same time. You know you’re a real photo geek when a romantic candlelight dinner inspires you to break out the camera and tripod!

One of the really amazing things about new digital DSLRs is their low light performance. Just a few years ago trying to light exclusively by candlelight meant risking a house fire. Today even APS-C sensors like the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D (compare) can yield decent results in low light and full frame cameras like the Canon 5D MK II and Nikon D700 (compare) can shoot in extremely low light.

Don’t Worry About Noise

This is one time you can forget about the ISO. Most digital cameras start showing low light artifacts anywhere over ISO 800. But candlelight portraits are one instance when the noise can actually add to a photo, so don’t be afraid to experiment with higher ISOs. If the pictures are too noisy you can always add more candles.

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Low light noise can actually add to a candlelight photo - by Miss Baker

Use a Tripod

Trotting out a tripod for some candid shots may not be the most romantic gesture, but it’s still better than hand-holding at slow shutter speeds. Even a gelled fill flash will spoil the effect, so there’s no real option here.

I wouldn’t go any lower than 1/15 of a second with a human subject as it’s hard for anyone to hold that still.

Use Reflectors

A white tablecloth actually works quite well as a natural reflector. A mirror will give you sharper shadows and strong directional lighting. Your standard photographic reflector clamped to a light stand will also come in handy to fill in the deeper shadows.

You can use aluminum foil over a piece of cardboard if you want a more irregular effect. If there’s a whiff of breeze, a flickering candle with an aluminum foil reflector can look like a campfire.

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Candles can function equally well as foreground or background lighting - by Walt Stoneburner via Flickr

Experiment

There are two ways you can go with candlelight photos: You can expose for the subject and overexpose the candle flame or you can expose for the candle flames and deliberately under-light the subject.

Try it both ways and try different combinations. You can sometimes use LED or incandescent bulbs as background light if you need more depth.

Do remember that a couple pictures of a special occasion is one thing, but a good photographer also knows when it’s time to hang up the camera and enjoy the moment.

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Take Better Travel Photos Today

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster in London, Photo by Brenden Sherratt

One of the biggest mistakes most people make in the pursuit of travel and holiday pictures is overlooking the fabulous in a quest for the trite and cliche. Every photographer in the business has made that mistake at one point in their career, so make a pledge that the pictures you take on holiday this year will be different.

Everyone knows what the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument look like. Any photos you could take will probably look just like hundreds of others of the same exact thing. Yes, take one or two, just for the scrapbook value, but don’t stop there. Find a unique angle, a different way of looking at something familiar.

Reflection of the Washington Monument in an eye. Photo by Jennuine Captures

When I used to work on a military base the building we were in had a peculiar paint job around the front door. Otherwise, it was just another nondescript government building designed and built by the low bidder. But the front door was distinct. So when I took a picture to remember my time there, I took a picture of the door handle. The handle that I reached for every morning for years and years and eventually came to dread touching. So many emotions all tied to an object that I looked at every day and almost failed to notice.

When you’re on vacation, get a shot of the touristy things, then try to find little details that define your experience. Maybe it’s a unique cab driver, or a street vendor, or some other details that normally get lost in the background clutter.

Faces in Temple Bar, Dublin, Photo by Brenden Sherratt

I have a friend with a large family who recently was able to get four generations of daughters together for a photo. He took the predictable group photo, then took one of everyone putting just their hands in a circle over a black background. Guess which picture was the most popular?

It’s the details that seem inconsequential today that spark the most vivid memories tomorrow. There was a stand of trees where we used to live, nothing particularly special about them, just trees. One day I fired off a shot just to check exposure levels of that stand of trees and forgot to delete it. It got mixed in with the assignment that day and I ran across it days later processing the pictures for the customer.

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A photo of a stand of trees that I almost deleted ended up meaning more to me than I would have thought at the time

To this day that’s one of my favorite shots. Just some trees, but I saw them every time I went outside and, even today, that shot can bring memories of that place flooding back.

So this year, don’t just take the obvious shots. Take pictures of hands, feet, dog toys, crumpled wrapping paper, and the millions of other little details you see but don’t always notice. Instead of just looking at the tourist attraction, look to the left and right, look behind it. Find a unique angle and tell a different story the next time you are on a trip.

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The Five Biggest Lies In Wedding Photography

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February is Pop The Question month which officially kicks off the spring wedding rush - by Diamond Farah via Flickr

We’re coming up on Valentine’s Day, which a wedding photographer friend of mine euphemistically calls Pop The Question Day. No matter how you look at it, there will be a lot of rings in a lot of champagne glasses by the middle of the month.

The Valentine’s Day rush will inevitably kick off the wedding booking season, which promises to be a good one in 2012. Wedding photographers I know are already seeing healthy bookings for the season, with one reporting 15 deposits in already.

As brides pull out their checkbooks and the real stampede starts to book venues, arrange catering, find a DJ and book a photographer, this is a good time to review the basics of shopping for a wedding photographer and to be aware of the most common untruths that can slip through unnoticed in the rush.

Sometimes it’s not a deliberate lie. Wedding photographers have a natural tendency to answer every question with yes, yes, yes. That sometimes leads to misunderstandings with brides thinking they’re getting service that isn’t in the contract.

The “Now Or Never” Lie

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"Now or Never" is a love song, not a negotiating strategy - by I.A. Walsh via Flickr

If a wedding photographer tries to tell you that you have to book today or the slot won’t be available tomorrow, leave. Anyone trying to bully you into signing a contract is a major red flag.

The best photographers will book early but that doesn’t mean you need to be in a rush. There are many great photographers out there and cancellations happen. In fact, be suspicious of any photographer who tries to use fear of availability as a pressure tactic to get you to sign a contract without giving you a chance to sleep on it. The best photographers will show you their calendar, show you the dates they have open, remind you that bookings are only finalized when they get the deposit and let you leave with the contract to read at your leisure.

The very best wedding photographers will also have a shelf of books you can sit down and page through at your convenience.

The “Sure, I’ve Shot That Venue Before” Lie

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Sure I've shot that venue before...where is it again? by Photos In Cancun via Flickr

Some photographers will say they’ve shot a venue knowing they can figure it out. If they really have shot that venue before, then they’ll be able to show you a wedding album shot there.

If they haven’t shot a venue before, an honest photographer will just admit it and the really good ones will swing by on their own time beforehand and take some background shots to make sure they have the proper lighting gear on the big day.

The “Preferred Vendor” Lie

This is a big one and usually comes from a caterer or venue operator, but sometimes a photographer will trot out a list of local venues and caterers that claim them as a preferred vendor. Those endorsements are almost always paid.

Carters and venue operators rarely get to the see final pictures anyway, so why would you take their word in the first place?

The “Top Rated Wedding Photographer” Lie

Some wedding photographers will trot out some really impressive ratings and endorsements from groups with names that sound really impressive. Anyone can manufacture endorsements and there are companies specializing in what’s called “online reputation management” that can boost vendor ratings in online forums and rating sites.

The best wedding photographers have a blog and post a few pictures from every wedding they shoot so you can see consistent quality from one wedding to the next. Pick out your favorites and ask for the bride’s contact information as a reference check.

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If their assistants were that good they'd be running their own business - by Harold Hoyer via Flickr

The “My Assistants Are As Good As I Am” Lie

Really? Then why aren’t your assistant photographers running their own successful wedding photography business?  The real pros are members of a professional association or a guild and when they need help, that’s where they go.

This is a topic to approach with some caution. After all, if the photographer you really want is sick or ends up under a bus, you want someone there, right? Many photographers do have hand-picked teams doing most of the work while the top person goes from wedding to wedding inspecting the shots and maybe adding a few of their own. That’s okay as long as they explain that all up front and you agree to it.

Sometimes there are really good reasons for a person not to be available and you want to be a little flexible. What you do want in writing is some reasonable assurance that the photographer you want isn’t merely handing the paper off to someone else while they’re out playing golf.

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Food Photography A Growth Industry

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Food photography is one of the few growth industries in photography - by Sidious Sid via Flickr

One of the challenges in photography is to make enough to keep eating. In that light it may be somewhat ironic that one of the fastest growing specialty fields is food photography.

The field of food photography has undergone changes since the introduction of the cell phone camera. The rise of sites like GrubStreet and Tastespotting where users are posting their culinary adventures, complete with photos.

The rise of food blogs has in turn put pressure on restaurateurs to raise their visual game on both the food they serve and the visual environment on their menus and web sites. That creates a growth environment for food photographers.

Just like any other field of photography, it’s a tough slog to get established. You can’t expect to post a food portfolio online and have work rolling in. Even if you did, you run the risk of pitching a big time client when you lack depth in the industry.

Use a reflector to bring some more light to your subject - Photo by Emily Hill from flickr

Lighting, Lighting, Lighting

You’ve heard the old saying in real estate that a home’s value is related to location, location, location. In food photography the corollary would be lighting. The best food photographers are lighting freaks and happened to find a home in food photography because their passion for lighting combined with a field of photography that requires a slavish dedication to detail.

Many food photographers work alone, but some bigger shoots might have an assistant, a food stylist, an assistant food stylist, and prop stylist. Most prefer to work in their own studio due to the difficulty of hauling all their gear to locations, though sometimes that can’t be avoided.

The food photography studios I’ve visited look more like industrial machine shops and the really good ones are booked for weeks in advance.

While there is a lot of lighting, none of it is particularly big. Surprisingly, I saw one big floor flash and the rest were smaller, point source lights and a lot of articulated arms holding mirrors, scrims, and reflectors. There were none of the big softboxes, umbrellas and lighting kits you’d find in a portrait studio. It’s a different kind of lighting, more directional, more sharp shadows than you find in portrait photography.

Photo by Benjie Ordonez from flickr

While the market for many types of photography is changing and for most that change is toward fewer opportunities and less income, food photography is showing surprising growth. One of those reasons is stock photography is not terribly useful in this application. Most food shots are of unique creations specific to the client, a work of art you can eat.

Some large customers, like restaurant chains and some hotels, are creating master image libraries for their food pictures, but other than that there are few ways to cut corners. The market for food photography is likely to stay healthy for quite some time.

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Be Careful Who You Buy From

camera photo

It's one thing to buy some flash units or lights from overseas, but don't risk it for cameras and lenses

As the world gets smaller and shipping gets easier, a new phenomenon is appearing in the camera market: Web sites that appear to be stores located in the U.S., U.K., or Canada that are actually storefronts for operations in other countries. For many of the cameras and camera electronics, the vendors are located in Hong Kong.

First off, there’s nothing at all wrong with shopping for camera gear outside the country, provided you know that’s where you’re shopping and are prepared to take the risk. I routinely shop at DealExtreme, one of those sites that ships from Hong Kong, because the discounts are pretty good and shipping is free. I know whatever I’m going to buy from them is going to take between 2 and 3 weeks to arrive and I’m okay with that.

I buy a lot of my flash units and strobes from Hong Kong vendors and quite a few of my video lights came from overseas, but buy a high end camera or expensive lens through them? No way!

The biggest issue for me is making sure I have a valid warranty here in the U.S. When you buy from vendors in Hong Kong, you may be getting grey market products, refurbished units, or products with menus in another language. What you won’t be getting in any case is a valid factory warranty where you live.

I probably see two or three sob stories every week from people who purchased products from an overseas vendor only to realize they would have to send the product back to China if they need warranty service. Most of those people were just trying to save a buck or two on their camera purchase.

Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more to be sure of who you’re dealing with and that you’re getting a top shelf product. When it comes to camera and video gear, I only shop three places:

B&H Photo Video
Adorama
Amazon

I’ve never had a problem with a return or exchange at B&H Photo, ever. You could buy a turkey from B&H, bring them a bag of bones the day after Thanksgiving and they’d still probably give your money back if you weren’t happy.

Shopping through Amazon you’re sometimes paying a higher price than direct through the vendor, but that means the vendor has to adhere to Amazon’s return policies. That’s a big friend to have on your side and the convenience of one-stop shopping is a time saver.

Snapsort only sells products through reputable sources, so you can shop with ease.

Sometimes it’s just not worth the price difference to shop with vendors you haven’t worked with before. There’s a reason companies like B&H have been around for years and have an excellent reputation in the professional community.  If you want to save a few bucks on a site that doesn’t have that reputation, you’re taking your chances.

 

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