Sunday, November 6, 2011

The first of many B&H shipments

The first time I walked into the B&H Superstore in NYC, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of inventory they had. Literally everything (except for Think Tank products...) are available there. Fast forward to mid-October, and I was gear shopping for an upcoming shoot. Naturally, I turned to the folks in Hell's Kitchen.

Considering my extremely low budget, I went with versatile products that didn't break the bank. Hence, Impact. I got an 8 foot air-cushioned Impact light stand and a 60" convertible umbrella (which Zack Arias, an advocate of working on the cheap, adores). A Photek umbrella adaptor (the Manfrotto one got nixed thanks to a top-rated customer review and the $10 premium), a Lumiquest SB-III, 4 Eneloops and charger, and a used Tiffin 62mm UV filter for my ancient Nikon 70-210 f/4 Series E lens rounded out the order. Besides the SB-III, which I thought was a bit overpriced for something essentially made of the stuff that covers binders, everything was an excellent value, and everything was at about 50% the Victoria price.

A quick rundown:

Impact stand: Fantastic.

Photek umbrella adaptor: Mixed feelings. I dislike the fact that it doesn't have a hole for the Nikon locking pin. The knob that tightens it loosens far too quickly. I had my SB-600 drop out of it. Luckily, it was only about 2 feet off the ground at the time, and it fell onto carpet. It wouldn't have taken much more than that. It's also metal, which needs to be covered in gaff tape. Excellent construction, and the tilt mechanism's great, but it ain't perfect.

Lumiquest SB-III: tried making my own out of Coroplast and failed miserably. Got the real thing, and it works way better. Still overpriced, but it can be so damn useful for field work. It fits perfectly in the pocket of a Domke F-3x, as though it was designed just for it.

Impact umbrella: versatile and cheap. A little big for 8 foot ceilings, but if you partially collapse it and it becomes much more manageable. I could definitely see a multi-flash bracket coming in handy, as one speedlight doesn't really do a 60" umbrella justice, though it certainly works. I opted for this over the 43" Westcott double fold as it was sturdier, bigger, and the same price. I didn't really need the portability. The solid shaft (instead of the hollow one in the Westcott) will contribute to its life expectancy. Probably better for full length portraits, multi-person portraits. I might get a 43" soft silver one, and a 30" convertible Impact one in the future. They're so dang cheap! I want them all!

Eneloops: haven't actually used them yet. The charger, however, has breathed new life into what I thought were dead Ni-MH batteries. Well worth it just for that. I'm sure the Eneloops are all they're cracked up to be, given the fact that they're the number one recommended Ni-MH battery brand out there.

UV filter: I was about to buy it new, but B&H automatically showed me a used copy. I paid half the cost of new, and it does its simple job as it should. It's very thick though, so I wouldn't recommend it for use with wideangle lenses. For $7, it can't be beat. Though used, it also arrived completely free of fingerprints and dust in its Ziploc bag. Very impressive.

Shipping was fast and cheap since they recently introduced the Purolator option for Canadian shoppers. It's cheaper than any Canadian retailer, and arrived in a week. You'll be happy you ordered there.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Domke F-3x - 5 months on

It's hard to imagine that I once just carried one body, and one kit lens, and that was it. Incredible. One year later, it's one gripped body, 2-3 lenses, 2 small light mods, a flash, notebook/pen, plastic rain cover, cleaning stuff, and various other bric-a-brac. And I'm still travelling lightly! Obviously, the original nylon Nikon-branded shoulder bag which could hold one consumer body sans grip and one lens (and maybe a small prime in a pinch) would not do. A well-timed trip to New York brought me to photography mecca, B and H (an ampersand is official, but for some reason Blogger refuses to let me use it). Steps away from my hotel, I would wander around, listening to the conveyor belt, the stereotypical New York accents, and the mind-boggling selection of gear. I could spend several months inside perusing the shelves. Maybe I'm just weird like that.

I was hunting for a bag that was low-profile-ish and large enough to grow into. I also wanted to spend less than $70. That is tough criterion, especially when a nice Think Tank bag can run upwards of $170. I was looking at various Tamrac, Lowepro, Tenba, and other offerings. I was enamored with none of them, and all gave off the "high-tech" smell. By chance, I was wandering around the used section of B and H when I found it: a lightly used Domke F-3x with a divider missing for $69.99. Coming from the world of padded, waterproof, high-tech bags to an unpadded canvas satchel was difficult, so I asked for some advice from an employee. My answer was swift, direct and typically New York: "Get the Domke, that other bag is shit." Point well taken.

I've now used this bag for 5 months. At the time, I thought it was ridiculously large. I mean, it is billed as a "Super Compact" bag, after all. This was not idea of super compact. I had only one body, one zoom and one prime. I was starting to think I made a mistake. Over time, however, I was slowly converted to the cult of Domke.

It collapses to a small size when it's not stuffed, and magically enlarges when you do need to stuff it to the gills. Now, when stuffed to the gills, I have a D90 with grip, 18-105 lens attached, 50mm f/1.8 AF-D, 70-210 Series E f/4 telephoto (manual focus, baby!), SB-600 in its case, homemade flash softbox and various other small objects. And the guy at B and H pointed out that I could get a seamstress to modify it as my needs changed. Good point. I like hax as much as the next nerd.

It hugs my body (well, my ass) when it's on my shoulder, and while it isn't totally low-profile, it doesn't automatically tag you as the guy with the camera. I could have my camera in a lunch box, but I think a line needs to be drawn between low-profile and functionality. At least it's not a Billingham.

The lack of padding isn't really that big of a deal. I mean, I used to baby my stuff but now I throw it around like a real pro. 30,000 actuations does that to a person. The gear has not been damage for lack of padding. I naturally end up a bit more careful when you're aware of the vulnerability of the gear. I find myself putting a hand around the bag to cradle it from harm, and I find the motion quite natural. More room for stuff and lighter bag. I can deal with that.

The single clip used to hold the flap down takes some getting used to, and some breaking in the soften. Wrap the ring the clip attaches to with gaff tape. It really helps to protect the metal and also to minimize noise from the metal parts jangling while running.

The shoulder strap is wide and imbued with rubber thread to keep it from slipping, which is a godsend. I bought the optional Postal Pad with it as well as an insurance policy if the lack-of-padded-strap was a dealbreaker. I leave the pad at home now. It just ruins the streamlined feel of the plain bag. I find it also doesn't add much to the comfort side. Mind you, my bag is still comparatively light. Those will FF bodies and f/2.8 zooms might disagree with me. It's only $13, and you can always sell it for food if you don't need it.

A new Domke F-3x in Canada would cost $190. I would have put the missing divider aside anyway. I think I got a pretty good deal.


Light, low profile, retro, "expandable", comfortable, machine washable.


Needs swivels on the shoulder strap, needs better handle (it's a skinny bit of cotton strap that's flat and unsuited for carrying with one hand. As a short shoulder strap, it sort of works.).


Sunday, August 28, 2011

GAS and Homemade Equipment

Zack Arias often mentions something called "GAS", or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I had that. I think everyone does at some point in their lives. I was convinced I needed a handheld softbox for my flash instead of using it bare bulb. McNally's got a few, Hobby's got a few, why not me?

I was lent a Lumiquest Softbox-III for my own graduation, which I found to be an unwieldy, socially-awkward thing. I used it at every opportunity, blind to the fact that it was not appropriate for every situation. The fact that I had it meant that I would use it non-stop. It lead to some good pictures, to be sure, but many more that could have been improved if I had just used less equipment.

I didn't realize this at the time, so when I was bored this summer I decided to construct my own using Coroplast, gaff tape, Velcro, and a clear plastic sheet cut from an envelope. A few days later, it was complete, but it didn't give me the results I wanted it to. I further modified it, and it still didn't. Twenty dollars in materials taught me that spending more money sometimes is just better than DIY shit. I paid the noob tax, if you will.

I learned something extremely valuable from Neil van Neikerk, which was how to use the environment around me, rather than to make the environment my bitch with f/stops, flash, and softboxes. Bouncing flash off side walls was a revolution to me, as I had only known ceiling bounce, and had considered it to be inferior to taking the flash off-camera, which turned out to not be entirely true, at least when shooting events. Now, I think my mind's cleared a bit from that "more is better" stuff. Sure, in many cases, an umbrella on a stick would be awesome, but I don't need it, at least, not yet. Better to worry about how my subject looks rather than how she's lit.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Missed Pictures

A few days ago, I took a long-ish walk to the library, and decided to bring my old Nikkormat with me. I shoot film very slowly, as I'm getting used to it, and I want every picture on the roll to be as good as it can be. Wishful thinking, I know. I was walking down a rocky trail of sorts when I came upon the cutest puppy I've seen in a while. I'm no dog expert, but I'm sure there was some German Shepherd in it, and a very bushy tail. It trotted slowly, was very curious, and seemed to meander a bit, as though it was taking in the world around, paying little attention to the two women accompanying it. I didn't want to seem too conspicuous around the owners, and didn't want to be put in an awkward position of "Hey, why are you photographing my dog?" (a question that would have never bothered that guy who doesn't give a crap and shoots street photos with flash and stays in the same small town and documents it to death whose name escapes me). I got one snap off and should have gotten another, better composed one. I waited, I doubted, I let my inhibitions get in the way. Gosh that dog was cute. Next time, next time.

Friday, July 8, 2011

US vs. Them (i.e., us, wait, this is way too confusing)

I dropped into one of the camera stores I frequent on my way to the craft store that I frequent to do something I do frequently: window shop. I can't help it; it's fun. Sometimes I feel sort of awkward when items that I want to look at are behind the counter, and you ask about them, and you are totally unprepared to buy them, but you want to get your grubby little hands on whatever it is you can't just look at. This was the case with the Westcott Apollo Micro. I saw one at B&H in New York for $30. I thought about buying it then, but with my raft of other purchases (and the lack of a flash at the time), I thought better of myself. It looked interesting, with its metal frame. It seemed too good to be true at $30.

I saw the same small softbox behind the counter in my hometown, and so I asked him if it was like, $50 or something (given the fact that everything in Canada is more expensive for some reason). He laughed a little and said $90. I was sort of shocked. Since when did the Canuck markup equal 200%? I told him the cost at B&H and he looked much as I did a few moments earlier. All this after another mini softbox (the Aurora Minimax) cost only a few dollars more in Canada than it did at B&H ($40 here).

As Seinfeld might say: What's the deal?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Celluloid Adventures

High school photography class led me to purchase a 1978 Nikon Nikkormat FT2 for $40. High school friendships led me to receive an old pre-AI 50mm f/2 lens. This was the beginning of my film adventure.

A single roll of black and white Ilford did not convert me to film, but it piqued a curiosity. Slow pictures were a foreign thing to me, and to an extent, still are. Curiosity led me to shoot my own last day of school with an expired roll of Konica VX 200, a decision that, in hindsight, was a mistake. My inexperience with film allowed me to improperly insert the film leader into the slot in the take-up spool, meaning I wasn't advancing the film, meaning that I did not shoot on celluloid, but on the film pressure plate. My roll came out blank. I had looked forward to many shots of happy students on their last day of high school with faded colors and such, but that was not to be.

While at B&H Photo in New York, I picked up a roll of Kodak Ektar 100, the finest color negative film produced today, for a few bucks (which is, consequently, a few bucks cheaper north of the 49th). I didn't want to buy too much because of X-ray concerns at the airport. I have inserted it properly, I think, into my Nikkormat FT2 after a lengthy consultation with the manual and much trial and error. I look forward to some very high quality prints in 36 exposure's time. Here's hopin'.


I will readily admit that posing people is not something I'm used to doing. Sports shooters have it easy in this regard. It's just a Nikon D3s on each shoulder on a harness thing, 300mm on one, 70-200mm on the other, maybe a third body around the neck with a 24-70mm. Easy (sports shooters will kill me for this). People skills aren't really necessary. For portraits, however, you have to verbalize and build rapport with models. That is something I have some improvement to do.

Neil van Neikerk and Joe McNally seem to have a very easy attitude with their models. Their experience in wedding and general portraiture, respectively, allows them to know what they want quickly, and the ability to verbalize (or in Neil's case, act out) the pose. I think I need some inspiration. Neil suggested clothing catalogues and practicing the poses yourself in a mirror. I just might do that.

I've seen videos of Annie Leibovitz posing people, and she does not look as comfortable. It's strange, considering her end result. Perhaps it is because of her reputation that she does not need to relax her subject; they are already relaxed. I remember her saying that she still does not feel particularly comfortable building a rapport with her subject. It doesn't show in the pictures.

I guess I have more work to do. Hopefully you won't find me striking poses anytime soon. I can guarantee it won't be pretty.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Duct Tape Gel Wallet

As a starving teenager with extremely limited resources, sometimes one must get creative and re-purpose wholly inappropriate materials to serve your needs. In a blog post many months ago, Joe McNally discussed the method he used to sort gels for his flashes. The king of TTL small flash, Joe needed a better way to sort the myriad of colors he had, from a quarter-cut CTO to 2-stop ND filter. He was using leather business card wallets to hold them, but he felt he could do better. A local shooter found a solution in the Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket memory card storage system. Designed for pro shooters with 10 Compact Flash cards at a time (unlike me, with only a single SD card and a spare inside a compact camera), this storage system was re-purposed by Will Foster simply by cutting the seams out of the middle of the memory card wallet (eliminating the compartments) and using that to organize gels. Very clever. Still, each Pixel Pocket Rocket is something like $20, which I was loathe to spend. Besides, it's sort of overkill since you don't really need padding around sheets of plastic. Until I did this, I was carrying my gels in my actual wallet, each one nestled beside a debit or library card. That was not working out. I wanted to stick little Velcro (sorry, hook-and-loop-fastener) bits on the sides of my gels so I could use my speed strap to attach them instead of gaffer's taping them to the flash, which was quite a fiddly and time-consuming operation. Alas, the fasteners were too thick for my wallet.

With that in mind, I created my duct tape gel organization system. I modified the instructions for a duct tape wallet I found online simply by sewing down the middle. I had no regular gray duct tape around, only camouflage, so that is what I used. I also found that regular thread was far too thin and delicate for sewing layers of duct tape, so I used a running stitch (the only one I remember from 8th grade sewing class), a very sturdy looking needle, and mint waxed dental floss (double "thread"). Besides, it's not like "quality workmanship" was what I was aiming for with this late-night project. All I wanted was something that worked. This works. It's not pretty, and I hope to move on from this to a more visually-appealing solution when I have cash to burn on visual appeal instead of food or handheld softboxes.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Image Dissection

Occasionally, I'll post images which have particular stories attached to them. Usually these stories involve exerting too much effort on my part for a very unremarkable result, but that seems to be the nature of photography.

This image took at least 12 hours in Photoshop. This is mainly because of my incompetence in Photoshop. I have always been a Lightroom person. My last job as a high school yearbook photographer required such fast turnaround times I never had time to really edit pictures, and I was not expected to. I shot as a photojournalist, meaning I couldn't exactly edit the hell out of stuff anyway. Now with my new portrait photog hat, people need to actually "look good", and this means no random stuff sticking out of people's heads.

After many hours of begging and trawling forums, I found the answer from a far more competent friend. Many more hours of clone stamping, edge refining, and exposure adjustment later and I had a good enough rough image to apply some final touches in Lightroom. The picture doesn't quite stand up to inspection at 200%, but at anything up to 11x14, it should look natural. It would have been better if I had adjusted one slider differently during the edge refining stage, and if I had the patience to figure out how to get rid of a pesky halo around the hair, it would have been perfect. Alas, my patience was worn extremely thin by the literal 11th hour, and I needed to deliver it to the client some time, so that was that. I'd like to believe she was satisfied with it, but I will do better next time. Mainly, I'd just avoid the problem in the first place, though I put them there to avoid a very busy thoroughfare in the Inner Harbour. Still, I think inconveniencing a few people for a few seconds would have been a lot better than inconveniencing myself for half a day. Well, I was bound to learn eventually...

Cheap vs. dirt cheap frames from Michael's

Top: Cheap-ish but reasonably nice Michael's 8x10 frame (with included mat)
Bottom: Unbelievably cheap Michael's 11x14 frame with an 8x10 photo in it (mat an extra $5)

Michael's, the mecca of compulsive scrapbookers everywhere, has been seducing me lately with extremely well-priced picture frames. While many of their products are surprisingly good for the price, avoid the value-pack frames like the plague. Even though they're ridiculously cheap and even of an acceptable quality, they seem to cheapen the picture inside of it. I have this 3-pack of 11x14 frames I got for something like $20 after several coupons. While they are thankfully not shiny, even after I put a mat in it, it still doesn't look quite as good as the other frames I bought in singles (made of real faux-wood rather than plastic). It just seems to lack visual "weight". It became painfully obvious this morning as I was framing one of my better "big city" shots (i.e., one of my only "big city" shots, since I live among feral deer and rabbits in suburbia).

I shot one of my first HDR pictures on top of the Empire State Building, and though I am not usually a fan of HDR, I was quite proud of this one. I could have bought another 8x10 frame, but I remembered that I had that 3-pack of 11x14's, so I decided to print it 8x10, mat it, and put it in the 11x14. The result was acceptable, but certainly not as good as I would have hoped. Now, instead of placing it in a more prominent area of the house, I have relegated it to a dark corner in an upstairs hallway. It's too bad, really. I mean, I could get a better frame, but ultimately, laziness prevails once more.