In Focus, Bangkok Photography Blog March 21st, 2009

Beung Boraphet/Portraits, Lighting Head Shots

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Cambodia Hotels

Feature Photograph

There are no rules for a good photograph, there are only good photographs. Ansel Adams

No truer words concerning photography and even writing were ever recorded.

This image is significant because it shows that even if you believe rules are made to be broken and individual artistic expression reveals the rare genius, that most often adherence to the rules helps a rather ordinary photographer (me) produce a really solid compositionally sound photograph. Rules are written for the masses, geniuses need not take note.

A recent workshop client expressed an interest in visiting Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha. I hadn’t been there for ages so I decided to head out there a few days early and get the lay of the land, find good parking, note the best places to capture the best compositions, study the light at this certain time of day, and generally just get a feel for the place so I could concentrate on the workshop lesson and not the tour guide side of things. I brought my camera and as I wandered through the compound and took note of the best locations, keeping the requested lesson topic in mind, I set about capturing images from the perspective of the requested lesson. The requested lesson was landscapes and the architectural captures of temples.

You can’t teach genius (especially when you don’t have any), but you can teach rules and impart experience(s). So following the rules and advice I planned on providing I carefully walked the temple compound, followed the rules, and ended up capturing some of the best photographs I’ve taken in quite some time. I plan on sharing them with you either next week or the week after in a Photo Outing to Wat Pho.

Alas, even when you’re following the rules you can’t make a great landscape out of a giant phallic symbol.

Beung Boraphet Wildlife Preserve and Wetlands

Every now and then the pieces fall together for a perfect outing. Such was the case several weekends ago when a group of friends with a love of photography and various levels of experience got together for a fun filled rewarding Saturday outing with Rob as tour director and technical adviser. Rob had been to Beung Boraphet several times before and was quite adept at “birding”, as was his wife Sao. Loading up several SUVs with a modest fortunes worth of photography equipment and eager photographers we headed out for Nakhon Sawan province.

Four hours outside of Bangkok we arrived at the park's entrance and quickly parked the cars, gathered our gear, and took advantage of the excellent food while our boat captain and guide readied the boat. Everyone knew we were “serious photographers” when we walked up because of the array of huge white lenses and big black camera bodies we carried. Besides, if that didn’t clue them in then a few of the guys were wearing odd looking hats which were sure to get the message across.

Birding has its challenges. The first challenge on boarding the boat is staking out your own small piece of real estate keeping in mind that you’ll need “lens swing” room so you don’t accidently knock your buddy in the head with the lens hood of your 500/4 IS. After a butt numbing four hour drive in the relatively comfortable leather seats of the SUVs I couldn’t help but cringe at the hard metal seats of the boat. Oh well, sometimes you really have to suck it up and endure to get some good captures. The two shots above were taken in rapid succession as one of the pair of birds decided to take off.

Each bird scene has its own challenges. With birding the biggest challenge is getting close enough to the subject so the bird becomes more than a mere speck in the frame. There are two ways to do this. First, you use the longest lens you have. Unfortunately I only had a 300/2.8 IS so on the advice of Rob I immediately added the 1.4x teleconvertor for a fixed 420mm. Second, the boat captain will try to maneuver the boat as close to the subject as possible. With a very loud and noisy unmuffeled car engine this becomes something of a challenge. The boat captain gathers some speed, aims the boat in the right direction, cuts the engine, and as we slowly drift closer we all raise our lenses and hold our breaths hoping we get close enough to fill even a small part of the frame. If you’re lucky you’ll catch some good light and get a nice reflection and you’ll remember to compensate your exposure so you don’t blow out the white feathers which is one of the most common errors.

It never fails, it will be you or one of your buddies, but someone’s foot will slip, a bag will fall, someone clears their throat, and the birds take off in flight in the blink of an eye. There you are in the boat, a half dozen huge white lenses tracking the birds like interceptor missiles tracking an incoming MIG21, shutters releasing at 8fps, silent swearing as someone loses tracking, and in a short moment the bird is out of range and everyone looks at each other with big smiles on their faces as they casually “chimp” their LCD to see if they got a keeper. A few managed some good shots and proudly share them with the others, more encouragement than boasting.

Birding reminds me a lot of trap / skeet shooting. You’ve got to remember to lead your subjects, lock them in, and then follow them while obtaining capture after capture. When shooting up into a bright sky a common error is exposure. Either you’ll compensate too little and the camera will meter for the sky which makes your bird nothing more than a dark shape against a bright sky, or you compensate too much blowing out the details of the whites leaving only a white shape.

If you get it right you’ll be able to see a lot of detail in the feathers and the sun will create contrasting levels of illumination across the bird.

And if you get it right and are lucky at the same time, the light will come from a direction that will also reveal the yellows of the beaks and feet and other colors present. And if the gods are really smiling you’ll do all this and achieve sharp focus at the same time!

Very few things are as beautiful as a wild seabird at full wingspan as it hovers over the water making minute corrections in flight.

The light on the water can be quite harsh, creating a huge dynamic range between the bird and the water. In this case our boat captain had already cut the engine and we slowly drifted towards this guy at a maddeningly slow pace. You could hear shutters going off well before we were in optimum range and I wondered if their buffers would be full when we finally got as close as we could. I had something else in mind. I knew the bird was going to take off and I wanted to capture him going from sunning himself with outstretched wings to running across the surface of the water to flight.. so I held my shutter finger off the shutter and it took all my self control to wait while everyone around me was whirring and snapping.

Suddenly he took off running across the water and I was ready!

Swiveling at the hips I panned him across 100-200 meters as he literally ran across the water before gaining enough lift to take off into the sky. We couldn’t help but watch with awe as this wild creature took flight and circled away from us.

This remains one of my favorite shots where the exposure on the bird was perfect, the focus perfect, the light extraordinary, and the depth of field optimal to take in the surrounding textures and colors. These are the shots that make you feel like the dollar slots in Vegas just paid off and the bells are ringing and the lights flashing and everyone is staring..

I had a great time on this outing and from all accounts so did everyone else. Thank you Rob!

Portraits, Lighting Head Shots

Several months back I talked a bit about photographing a girl on my soi, how hard it was to pin her down for a shoot, and how patience eventually pays off. I also promised to revisit this shoot and talk a bit more about the lighting, lenses and techniques.

Head shots are common, but way too often misused. I’ve done many head shots for the portfolios of actors / actresses where the sole intent is to show their facial features. Sometimes we use them for book jackets, all forms of identification, and even on the walls of real estate offices. Head shots give the viewer a very close up and personal look, and always show all the flaws and blemishes average people always have.

One of the rare applications where headshots really work well is when the subject is extraordinary in some way, be it with natural beauty, unique hair or makeup, or unusual character. Many capture headshots without one of these attributes and more often than not they end up looking like unattractive mug shots. So what makes a good headshot?

Attractive subject, good makeup, comfortable facial expressions, and lighting that accentuates the good while downplaying the bad.

I’m going to show some headshots and talk about them a bit in the hope you’ll be able to apply my reasoning to your own work.

The above shot is very standard. Her makeup is well done and her face attractive. Most compelling are her eyes. The light ‘modeling’ off the right side of her face lends a bit of depth to this shot.

This shot is closer in, but almost perfect. Her expression is one of ease and comfort, her lips almost smiling in their smoothness. Her eyes are symmetrical and large. By placing a single off-camera strobe with an attached softbox less than 14 inches from her face at a 90 degree angle I was able to light half of her face, while creating a shadow on the other half. Still, both eyes come through very strongly. This is a very strong (good) headshot.

Not all headshots should have the subject staring into the lens. Try to get them to look off-center and still give that feeing of ease and comfort. her eyes and lips remain strong points of beauty as does her skin. A nice soft light from the softbox will help her skin glow and her eyes shine.

This is a variation of the shot above where half her face is lit, half is a shadow, but split toning is used to help create a mood.

Much is wrong with this image. She’s so comfortable she’s smirking! The light is too strong, she’s starting through the lens, and the colors don’t really work well.

This almost works, but the crop weakens the composition and it almost looks like she’s watching an alien disembark by the swimming pool. Very small differences can have a huge effect on the final composition.

This image is average, but not more than average because of one small thing. The lopsided smile and the white of the single tooth showing. This is very common. Professional models learn to look into the mirror and perfect their smiles and learn to feel where their teeth are on their lips. A good photographer learns to shoot several shots in a row knowing this is common, and hoping for a clear shot.

Teeth make a huge difference. She looks really cute in this shot, but a bit “bucky beaverish.” This shot just isn’t very strong. “Half smiles” are oft practiced and very desired, while full cheek to cheek smiles most often add too many wrinkles and distort the face.

This is another very strong shot. A “half smile”, natural huge and expressive eyes, proper lighting, and just a bit of attitude in the pose and tilt of the head.

When shooting for a feature cover, or even a strong portfolio, I’ll often capture hundreds of images in a session.. and end up only using a handful. Even the most experienced models have hit and miss facial expressions. You really need to ensure your technique and lighting is perfect because when the right pose and expression hits.. you want it to be
perfect! We’ll cover this topic more in the future.

Photography News of Interest

Getty Images lays off 110! This is the biggest stock photography agency in the world and they’re laying off staff. You can read more about it here.

Digital Photography Review has done a hands-on preview of the Canon TS-E 24mm 1:3.5 L II tilt shift lens and the initial results look very promising! This is a very specialized lens and you can read the preview here.

I hate hearing this sort of thing as it makes it tough for all of us trying to make a living with our cameras. This photographer is accused of the inappropriate touching of eight little school girls. I hope the investigators learn the truth and appropriate action is taken. You can read more about it here.

A one armed conductor! It sounds impossible, but where there is a will there is a way! Overcoming a serious disability this man who was once a photographer is now retrained and working as a bus conductor in Lagos where the job market is very tough. Good for him! You can read about it here.

Okay, like we really care. Still, Barbie’s Malibu Dream house was photographed and you can see it here.


Readers' Submissions

Steve—–

I just opened your latest In Focus page and was really impressed with the article by Doc P and the quality of your site. Both just excellent. You have obviously put much effort into these pages and it shows! A very classy look and a great marketing effort. I just returned from Asia and have included a couple of pics of Busanga Island, south of Manila and north of Palawan——same limestone formations that you see in Thailand. The old man is an owner of 5 birds nest caves and was preparing bettle nut.

Carlea

Carlea –

Thank you very much for your feedback. Dr. P put a lot of work into his contribution and so far the feedback has been all positive. It seems many people really enjoyed learning about his travels.

I’m very happy you like the column. I’m always looking for more exposure and more input from the readers.

I very much enjoyed your images. Thank you!

Steve

I suspect the readers submissions will be a highly anticipated section of this column and I encourage anyone with photographs and travel accounts they d like to share to please send them to me at: [email protected]

Readers' Questions

Hi Steve,

I've got a couple of questions for you.

1. As you know I use the Canon 70 – 200 F4. Optically this lens is superb and in good light it focuses beautifully on my 5D ii. At night however, or in very low light, the focus is not so good. I have the Canon 135 F2 and am thinking of getting a 1.4x converter. That will make it effectively a 190 F2.8 – and with it being 2.8 it should focus a lot better in lo light. Will the 1.4 x converter work ok on my 135?

This combo will be used almost exclusively for photography in low light at night. I figure the 1.4x converter will also have other applications in the future but that would be the main one I use it for at this point in time.

2. I have a number of collections of photographs I want to publish on the site but am looking for a new slide show maker, something that looks sharp. Any suggestions?

Cheers,

Stick

Hi Stick –

1. Yes. It will work. But always check the compatibility chart provided by Canon because sometimes they look like they'll work.. but you'll damage things trying.

Admittedly I've never tried this before.. this is why I bought a 2.8 version of the 70-200.. and why I call the 70-200/2.8 IS the perfect photojournalist's lens. So, I checked the chart and mounted my 1.4tc on the 135/2.. tested it out.. and it appears to work just fine. Shooting at F2.8 I like the results of the 70-200/2.8 IS better.. but marginally.

2. What type of slideshow are you looking for? I use the Slideshow Pro plug-in for Lightroom to make slideshows like this: http://www.bangkokdigitalimaging.com/photos/sra/

Every part of this is customizable. The size of the main image, the size of the thumbnails, color, the reflection, music, controls, and so on.. all if it is stuff you can set to your specs before uploading. Because it works with Lightroom it makes life really easy.. no sizing of images, etc.. it's all done for you.

Then.. there are both HTML and Flash gallery templates for Lightroom, some of which have a "slide show" function in that they'll automatically rotate the images. Many templates are available on the web for free, some you buy, some you donate what you wish.

Slideshow Pro also makes a stand alone program, a "for Flash" plug-in, and some other products depending on which piece of software is your main focus.

I hope this helps

Steve

Please submit your questions to [email protected] All questions will be answered and most will show up in the weekly column.

A Snapshot of Bangkok Images Week in Review

This last week turned out to be quite busy! We had two workshops that couldn’t have been more different and more enjoyable at the same time. Each day we started before 0900 and went to almost midnight in both instances. I very much enjoyed both workshops, one where we did the “Pattaya Loop” and the other a landscape workshop in Ayutthaya.

In addition I processed the images for several more galleries and you can see them here:

Wedding 1

Wedding 2

Wedding 3

Wat Pho (reclining Buddha)

Infocus Blog

Random Acts of Kindness?

How often do you hear about dishonest Thais€ around the tourist areas? Thais trying to cheat you, pickpocket you, and take advantage of you in so many various ways? I hear and read about it all the time, yet in over eight years in Thailand I’ve RARELY personally experienced such treatment first hand. In fact, my experiences are quite the contrary!

Last year I was in the Pranburi area with my assistant when the rivets holding the main strap on my leg brace broke. I can barely walk without my leg brace and driving becomes near impossible. What are the chances of me finding a proper sized rivet and rivet gun to effect a repair in the late afternoon of such a sleepy village?

Stopping at a motorcycle repair shop the Thai couple immediately saw my plight and came to my aid. They didn’t have the rivet, but after making sure I was comfortable in their home with a tall glass of cold tea they took off on a motorbike and returned over an hour later with the rivets needed to repair my brace.

I tried to pay them and they refused! All they wanted was to chat for a bit and help a foreigner passing through their town. They were obviously of simple means and when I once again tried to pay for their services they almost took it as an insult. Later that afternoon I bought some BBQ chickens, beer, and other treats and showed up on their doorstep to share a meal. They were delighted!

Last week I was taking pictures at Wat Pho. My wallet was brimming with grey sharks and I was carrying over $20,000 USD worth of expensive camera gear. Having just recovered (obviously not all the way) from a serious bout of E-coli, when the temps hit 44C and the humidity shot way up, I started to feel a bit light-headed. Suddenly things started spinning and everything went dark.

I was a perfect target to take advantage of, but several Thai men came to my aid with cold wet towels to revive me, and helped carry me to my car where my assistant had pulled it around. They were careful to make sure my gear was protected and my health was their main worry. I’ve rarely been treated with such kindness.

I was in too bad of shape to immediately return and properly thank them, but I will next week for sure!

Were these truly “random acts of kindness”, or were they really just the Thai way? Perhaps both. I very much enjoy living in this country and interacting with the locals and these two experiences while not unique, certainly refresh my faith in my fellow man.

Until next time..