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Add Soft Lighting to your off-camera flash

The modern day external flash unit is a vital accessory for indoor portraits, still life, food shots and more.

Light that originates from a small source such as an external flash unit is harsher than light that originates from a larger source. To “soften” the lighting especially for portraits, photographers often use “modifiers” to alter the lighting to something more pleasing. Most of the modifiers work by spreading the light out over a larger area.

LumiQuest has been a well-known maker of modifiers for many years. Among their bestsellers is the Softbox III. When I was attending the WPPI Expo, Heidi one of LumiQuest’s principals gave me a quick demonstration of this lightweight device. I was so impressed that I ordered one when I returned home.

The concentrated light from the flash bounces inside the reflector of the Softbox III and passes through the translucent material covering its face. Instead of harsh light originating from the small flash head, a softer light originates from a much larger reflector.

Follow along as I show you how I’ve used the Softbox III to improve the lighting on some of my recent portraits.

When it’s disassembled, the Softbox III folds flat to a 8″ x 9″ size, making it convenient to take anywhere.

As folded, it easily fits in the outer pocket of my camera bag so is always available when I’m carrying my external flash.

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In this final Part 3, I’ll show you additional examples of some of the innovative and easy-to-use features that make the Sony Alpha A55 my recent favorite camera.

You can read about the “standard” features of the Sony Alpha A55 in Part 1 of my review. And in Part 2, I describe my experience using several of the A55’s unique features.


D-Range Optimization

When shooting a scene that has high contrast, you may notice that the shadow areas are likely to lack detail and/or the highlight areas are overexposed.

To counter this tricky lighting, the A55 offers D-Range Optimization that compresses tones to preserve detail in both shadows and highlights.

This feature is not unique to the A55; Canon offers a similar feature which it calls Auto Lighting Optimizer and Nikon uses the moniker Active D-Lighting.

However, the A55 offers five levels of D-Range optimization. To use it, press the dedicated D-Range button on the top of the camera to reveal the DRO menu item and toggle between Auto, Lv 1, Lv 2, LV3, Lv 4 and Lv 5.

In the high contrast winter photos below, you can see that the D-Range reveals much more shadow detail at Lv 5.


D-Range off

D-Range Lv 1

D-Range Lv 5

High Dynamic Range – in-camera

The A55’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature has a similar goal as D-Range Optimization, namely to maintain detail in shadows and highlights. HDR photography attempts to reduce the contrast levels of a scene so that the scene can be displayed with maximum detail on a print or display device.

For the last few years, HDR has been popularized by using software to combine multiple images within the computer. The A55 is one of the first to offer it easily and automatically in-camera.

For HDR, the A55 take 3 successive photos with varying exposures (bracketed). To use it, press the dedicated D-Range button on the top of the camera to reveal the HDR item. Then toggle between Auto, 1.0 EV, 2.0 EV, 3.0 EV, 4.0 EV, 5.0 EV and 6.0 EV. For example, when set to 3.0 EV, three images are captured: one at the normal exposure, one at 3 stops overexposed (+3.0 EV) and one at 3 stops underexposed (-3.0 EV).
The A55 then writes two images to the SDHC card: one at the normal exposure and a second that has been processed to combine the predominantly shadow detail from the +3.0 EV capture, the predominantly highlight detail from the -3.0 EV capture and the predominantly midtone detail from the normal exposure.

normal exposure

HDR 3.0 EV

normal exposure

HDR 5.0 EV

normal exposure

HDR 6.0 EV
Some users are surprised that the HDR images appear to have low contrast, but this is a by-product of having to reduce such a wide range of exposure values to level suitable for a display device or printing.

While it may not produce acceptable results in all situations, I’ve been happy with many of the A55’s HDR images that I’ve captured.

Note that HDR is not available unless the A55 is set to capture JPG only images (not RAW).


Multi Frame Noise Reduction – in-camera

Multi frame noise reduction is the A55’s “stealth” feature. For some reason, it hasn’t been widely promoted by Sony. In fact, I didn’t know about multi frame noise reduction until one of the Sony reps explained its use to me at a recent trade show.

When set to use this feature, the A55 captures six successive images and merges them to produce a single image with lower noise.

Once again, it’s simple to use. Press the ISO button and set the topmost item (labeled ISO) between Auto and 25600. Press the shutter release to capture the scene and a short time later after it is processed, the image is written to the SDHC card.


Left: image captured at ISO 1600;
Right: image captured at ISO 3200 with multi frame noise reduction.
Click to see an enlargement.

You can also click here
to see a more detailed full size image

Briefly, the process works like this: the camera automatically takes 6 frames at the currently settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. It combines them into a single JPEG image by carefully aligning the 6 frames during compositing while at the same time using proprietary techniques to reduce noise level equivalent to two ISO exposure levels.

Above, you can clearly see that the noise level of the rightmost image is significantly less than the leftmost image even though it was captured at a higher ISO setting. I experienced an equally reduced noise level in several other images that I shot in low lighting conditions. So I find multi frame noise reduction to be a very useful yet unexpected feature.

Note that multi frame noise reduction is not available unless the A55 is set to capture JPG only images (not RAW).


Sweep Panorama – in-camera

While I’m a fan of panoramas, the task of setting up a tripod, adjusting the camera to capture a series of images, post-processing the individual images and finally pasting them together afterwards using stitching software often takes a few hours.

With the A55, you can create a panorama automatically. First, you set the mode dial for panoramas. From the shooting menu, you can select either 2D or 3D panoramas.

For 2D panoramas, you choose a direction for panning: left to right, right to left, up to down or down to up direction and a format: standard or wide.

For 3D panoramas, you choose a direction for panning: left to right or right to left and a format: 16:9, standard or wide.

As its name suggests, to capture a scene you press and hold the shutter while slowly sweeping (panning) the camera in the chosen direction. After a specified number of images are captured, shooting ends and the A55 stitches together the separate images to create the panorama and writes a single one to the SDHC card.

It’s as simple as that. You’ll want to take a few test shots to determine the speed at which you should sweep the camera. To guide you, the A55 displays helpful text messages in the viewfinder with shooting suggestions.

Below are a pair of panoramas that I captured – one with the camera held in the horizontal orientation and the other with the camera held in the vertical orientation.

Death Valley panorama captured horizontally 8192 x 1856 pixels

Bryce Canyon panorama captured vertically 3872 x 2160 pixels
I also captured a few 3D panoramas. However, to display a 3D panorama, I had to have a 3D television and special eyewear. The 3D panoramas are very impressive.

The 3D panorama will appear as a 2D panorama if you do not use a 3D television nor special eyewear.

I really enjoy the ease at which I can capture a landscape using the Sweep Panorama.


Earlier in the review, I mentioned that I’ve had extensive experience with a large variety of DSLRs. These range from low-priced entry to expensive professional level. I mention this so that you understand that my fondness for the Alpha A55 is not just “puppy love”.

When I first learned about the Alpha A55, I was amazed by the number of innovative features that Sony claimed to have packed into this new body. In the two months that I’ve used this camera, I remain impressed by the results that I’m seeing in the images and the ease with which I am able to capture them.

If the Alpha 55 is any indication of the kind of innovation that we might expect from Sony in coming months, I’ll be anxiously watching for more.

It looks like Sony has a winner. The Sony Alpha A55 is certainly a winner in my book.

 

Written by Arnie Lee

 


Unique Features of the Sony Alpha A55

The Sony Alpha A55 has a long list of features – some of which you may find in a few other cameras and others that are unique only to the A55. But taken together they they make the A55 a very compelling piece of equipment.

In Part 1, I talked about the “standard” features of the A55.

In this part of the review, I’ll key in on several of these features that are both unique and innovative.

The first three features are possible because of the A55’s translucent mirror.


Electronic Viewfinder

The first time I used the A55, I was surprised when I put my eye up to the viewfinder. In place of a conventional reflex viewfinder used in DSLRs, the A55 has an electronic viewfinder (EVF). The resulting image is somewhat similar to what I might see on a miniature television.

A big advantage is that the image in the EVF can be overlaid with a variety of information as you can see below.


viewfinder displaying the level gauge in the center

viewfinder displaying histogram at bottom right

viewfinder showing changeable settings
Having used a dozen or more DLSRs extensively, it took me about a week to get used to the EVF. As a wearer of eyeglasses I was able to set the built-in diopter adjustment correctly for my vision. The image is bright and clear owing to the 1.1 megapixel viewfinder screen, a high refresh rate (60fps). The EVF also has 100% field coverage. I especially like the level gauge that helps to align the horizon.

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To protect it from scratches and help keep it clean, consider using a clear protective filter on your camera lens.


They’re an inexpensive (prices start around $13 depending on lens size) way to protect your lens.

A filter also helps keep the lens clean from dust, smudges and the elements when you’re shooting in bad weather. A filter can help prevent damage caused by wind-blown debris, sand or salt spray such as when you’re shooting outdoors at the beach.

Furthermore, it’s easier to clean the filter instead of cleaning the lens itself. It’s also less expensive to replace the filter when it’s damaged than a lens.

Now you might be thinking “isn’t that the purpose of a lens cap?” and you’d be correct. The problem with a lens cap, however, is that it’s so easy to lose or misplace it. A filter, unlike the lens cap, is actually attached to the lens so it cannot fall off or become lost. Also, you won’t lose an opportunity of snaping a once in a lifetime photo by fumbling with the camera to remove the lens cap.

Keep in mind as you consider using a filter that if you ask ten photographers whether they use filters, five may say yes and five may say never. In other words, there are many opinions on the value of protective filters. Some believe that a filter is unnecessary and therefore they rarely, if ever, use a protective filter. They may prefer using lens caps, lens hoods or simply handling their cameras very carefully.

Some photographers believe that lenses made today are already protected with special coatings against scratches and dust and, therefore, don’t need any protection from the environment in most normal photography conditions.

Other photographers keep a filter on each lens they use, perhaps taking the filter off during certain types of photography.

You’ll have to decide whether a quality clear filter is best for your shooting situations.

Note: instead of a clear filter, you may also consider an UV filter. It serves the same purpose as a clear protective filter but may be easier to find at your local camera dealer.

 

Written by Scott Slaughter

 


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A New Breed of Camera

I first laid my hands on the Sony Alpha A55 (and the smaller, less expensive Alpha 33) at the PhotoPlus Expo in New York City last September.

What interested me in this new camera was its fixed translucent mirror. In a conventional DSLR, the reflex mirror reflects the image into the viewfinder and then swings out of the way when you press the shutter to send the image to the “film” light sensor. In the Alpha 55, the translucent mirror sends a small portion of the incoming image to the viewfinder and the remainder to the “film” light sensor. This stationary mirror gives the camera several unique features that I’ll describe shortly. This technology isn’t new. In the early 1960′s Canon made a model called the Pellix using a similar scheme with a pellicle mirror. My uncle bought this camera back then, one of the first to have Through The Lens metering (TTL) and it served him well for many years.

The A55’s translucent mirror eliminates the reflex mechanism providing a space, weight and cost savings. Removing this mechanical assembly also allows for a higher frame rate. Next, the electronics measuring the auto exposure remain uninterrupted from frame to frame giving instant responses to varying changes in lighting. Similarly, the auto focus system stays 100% available – a very important consideration for high speed continuous shooting.

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Having grown up in the late 60s, I was excited to learn that one of my contemporaries – James Taylor – was going to be performing in Grand Rapids on March 8th. I anxiously waited for tickets to go on sale, but they were quickly sold out in less than an hour. Fortunately, I found two available last minute tickets through StubHub so I was still in luck.

Through the years, I’ve done my fair share of event photography. But nowadays when I go to a concert or show, I’m usually attending as a spectator and not as a working photographer with a press pass. Since one of my hobbies is to collecting pictures of celebrities, I continue to take a small camera with me – just in case.

Typically, show venues are a mixture of dark backgrounds with strong spotlights. For effect, the performers are often “creatively lit” (read dimly). This stage lighting makes for a very contrasty scene.

So the challenge is to be able to use the theater’s available light to capture the performers. Flash is a no-no.

 

Wait for the right moment
Arnold McCuller

Although my camera is set for dim lighting (ISO is set to 1600), the dim lighting forces a slow shutter speed – in this case about 1/25 second. Here the performer is moving slightly so I end up with a blurred image. Performer: Arnold McCuller
Arnold McCuller

The solution to the blurred image is to carefully watch the performer and snap when he/she is in a more or less stationary position. With a little practice, you’ll be able to anticipate the times when the performer is positioned like a statue.

Adjust the exposure
James Taylor

Most cameras determine the exposure by averaging the amount of light in a scene. On a dark stage with bright spotlights, the camera is usually “fooled” by the darkness. This overexposure causes the brightly lit faces to be washed out. Performer: James Taylor
James Taylor

To prevent the his face from being washed out, I set the camera to reduce the exposure. For this shot, I used the camera’s exposure compensation to make a -2 (f/stop) adjustment. Although his guitar is darker, his face is now properly exposed.

 

For stage performances, you can use relatively inexpensive equipment. On this occasion I used a Canon SX210 IS point-and-shoot which has a 14X optical lens. Our seats were fairly close – the seventh row – but the lens allowed me to zoom in to grab a decent shot.

Just a quick note about courtesy: The auditorium was filled to the brim. Everyone paid for tickets with their hard-earned money so I go out of my way to keep as unobtrusive as possible when taking photos. I’m careful not to put my camera in front of another spectator and to be silent as I snap (usually a menu selection for “silent mode”). They are there for the performance, not to be disturbed by a rude and noisy picturetaker.

And since my real reason for being at the concert was to hear the performance, I make sure that I get to enjoy the music without being overly preoccupied with my camera. And by the way, the performance was great!

You can see more celebrity photos from my hobby celebrity collection here.

 

Written by Arnie Lee

 


Extending your Arm

You see it all of the time – an excited picture-taker is pointing her camera at herself with an extended arm. She’s taking her own photo.

She could have used a QuikPod. I first saw a demo of the QuikPod at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January and recently ordered one through Amazon.

The people at QuikPod designed a neat device that helps these photographers take better self-portraits.
The QuikPod is small and is packaged in a lightweight net carrying case that fits in a coat pocket or purse.

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Shooting Birds

Certainly one of the reasons that I enjoy the profession so much is that there are so many types of photography to choose from: architectural, wedding, journalism, nature, portrait, fine art, and the list goes on.

And like many other photographers, I often jump from one type of photography to another when the job calls for it or when I feel the need to “escape” to a totally different subject.

Each type of photography utilizes different skills.

For example, portrait photography is most successful when the subject can comfortably relate to the photographer who then combines creative posing and technical lighting to record a likeness of that subject.

A food photographer may use many tricks to enhance the appearance of a gourmet dish – with sprays, glue or gels, perhaps. These are skills that make the food look good; you probably wouldn’t want to eat the food after the photo session.

Having participated in many of the types of photography over the past 40+ years, I have learned that some types of photography require a higher level of skill than others.

From my experience, “photography degree of difficulty” varies from snapshots and event photography at the low end to wedding photography at the high end. And somewhere near the high end is wildlife photography. For the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to improve my wildlife skill level.

Birds are among the most nervous types of animals to photograph. Approach a bird perched on a branch and he’ll quickly fly away.

Consequently, most of my photos of birds are from quite a distance using a long telephoto lens.

On my last outing, I snapped several bird photos which drew complimentary comments from several viewers. While I’d like to think that the photos were the result of my great skills as a nature photographer, in this case it’s not true.

Last week, I was doing a little winter hiking in Bryce Canyon NP and stumbled upon this colorful Stellar’s jay.

This photo was taken with long telephoto lens from about 50 feet away. I hesitated to approach the jay any closer for fear that he’d take off.

Surprisingly, the jay flew closer to me. In fact, he ended up landing on a tree branch that was only 20 feet from where I was standing.

I can only surmise that in the cold wintery weather he was acting differently than he would if I encountered him in warmer weather.

My telephoto lens has two settings: one to accommodate close focusing (2 meters) and one for more distant focusing (8 meters). So as not to disturb the bird, I very slowly changed the lens setting for close focusing and snapped.

Bingo. Here’s the closeup that I ended up with of the Stellar’s jay.

I can definitely say that this photo was more a matter of luck than skill. Anyway, for me this photograph is a definite keeper.

As a counterpoint, here’s a less lucky encounter that I had about an hour before.

As I was hiking along the hard packed, snow covered trail that descended into one of the canyons, I heard a screech overhead. I gazed upwards and saw a large, majestic set of wings in the sky.

I hurriedly changed lenses to my long telephoto and looked up again. But during the minute that I spent changing lenses, the predator had climbed higher and farther away.

I quickly snapped a half dozen photos before the eagle was out of range. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as lucky here. The photo is blurred owing to the distance and my rushed attempt.


So this time out, luck played a role in my capturing the Stellar’s jay. But I wasn’t as lucky with the golden eagle.

Still, I know that unless I’m out there hiking the trails and observing my surroundings that luck won’t have a chance to take hold. Each time I’m out enjoying nature I’m hoping that for that lucky catch.
Take enough photos and luck will come your way too. It’s a promise.

 

Written by Arnie Lee