I’d like you to meet my photography studio assistants: the rubber duck family (click for larger view)…
These little guys became permanent travelling companions in my camera bag some time ago, when I went through a phase of capturing uninspiring landscapes. I read about this technique for overcoming the issue of boring compositions: carry an arbitrary object around in your camera bag, and find a creative way to include it in the scenery whenever you lack inspiration. The rubber duck family did a great job of inspiring creativity in my landscape work when I felt uninspired!
Having moved on from that phase, the rubber ducks maintained their place in my camera bag and were promoted to the role of ‘studio assistants’ for much of the commercial work that I do…
I often find myself out on location with clients, having to make use of whatever space and lighting that they have available. Rather than toy around with my equipment to get the settings correct while one of the client’s models stands around idly twiddling their thumbs, I get there early and pose my rubber ducks to get everything just right.
Although one could use any arbitrary object for this purpose, the rubber duck family is particularly well suited to this kind of work! The soft, yellow, rubbery surface of each duck’s body appears much like the made-up skin of a human model when photographed, while the reflective, red beaks do a great job of mimicking the reflections of a human model’s lip gloss when using flash units. Furthermore, the irregular form of each duck (particularly mother duck) helps to assess how highlights and shadows will appear on the equally irregular form of the human face.
As for my choice to use a family of rubber ducks rather than a single rubber duck: having three objects that I can place at varying distances from the camera can be really helpful in assessing the depth of field that any given combination of lens focal length, focal distance and aperture will give me. This is particularly useful when shooting multiple models together, or when the surroundings of a single model are important in the final image.
Apart from the technical uses described above, the rubber duck family can provide a great conversation starter for when we want to ‘connect’ with our models in a bid to get the best possible images. I often leave the rubber ducks out on the floor where the model(s) will be standing when it comes time to start the shoot… and they have never failed to start a jovial conversation that forms a connection between myself and my models!
So, rather than spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on cameras, lenses or filters next time you feel it’s time to upgrade your equipment, save your money and spend just a couple of dollars on a family of rubber ducks. As far as I’m concerned, they are a ‘must have’ piece of equipment in the commercial photographer’s camera bag, due to their versatility and applications when working under a wide range of conditions that the photographer cannot readily control.
Photography filters (the glass ones that you put on the end of the lens while you’re shooting; not the ones you add in Photoshop) have made a huge difference to the quality of my photos. That said, there is something of a steep learning curve associated with them, in terms of knowing which filters to use in which situations, and also in knowing how each filter will change the image captured. I have been wanting to post an article that visually illustrates the filters that I consider to be essential for a landscape photographer, but didn’t find a scene that really illustrated them well until just recently…
Shooting Without Filters
Let’s start with a couple of images taken WITHOUT any filters at all. The light a little while after sunrise is quite contrasty, and so without using any filters, I have to choose between exposing correctly for the lighthouse and the sky behind it (in which case the foreground is dark and under exposed), or for the rocks and water in the foreground (in which case the sky and lighthouse are bright and overexposed):
There are filters to overcome this dilemma!
Neutral Density Gradient (ND Grad) Filters
ND Grad filters are sheets of glass/plastic that slide into an adapter that you screw onto the front of your lens. One half of the filter is coated with a grey, neutral density coating that gradually fades into no coating at all. The light that passes through the grey area is darkened, allowing us to control the bright/highlight areas in the composition to make them more consistent with the dark/shadow areas. ND Grad filters come in a range of strengths… I have a set of three that achieve 1-stop, 2-stops and 3-stops of darkening, and the adapter is such that I can stack them on top of each other to achieve up to 6-stops of darkening in one half of the image.
Although I have achieved correct exposure throughout the image with thanks to the ND Grad filters, the reflection of the lighthouse is “shimmering” a little too much for my liking…
Black Glass Filter
I have a Hoya NDX400 filter (often referred to by photographers as “black glass”) that screws on to the front of the lens to darken down the whole image by a whopping 9 stops! In mathematical terms, the NDX400 filter allows only 1/500th of the available light to enter the lens. Or put simply, I have to double the normal exposure time 9 times to get a correct exposure when the NDX400 filter is on. As such, a common use for the NDX400 filter is to achieve long exposures in daylight conditions. I typically use the NDX400 to smooth the surface of water, as is my style, and the effect that I need to reduce the shimmer in the reflection of the lighthouse here.
You may also notice that application of the NDX400 filter has resulted in richer, deeper colours here… a nice side-effect of the long exposure achieved through this filter.
While I do think this is a pretty decent image so far, there is one more thing that could make it just that little bit better. We can see that there is some interesting textures below the surface of the water in the bottom right corner of the image… imagine how much better the image could look if we could see some more of that underwater detail!
Circular Polarizing Filter
A Circular Polarizing filter (or CPL) allows us to control the reflections of light that are allowed to enter into the lens when we shoot. Without getting too scientific about it, light emitted from a light source (except for a laser) is omni-directional… it goes every which way; whereas the light we see reflected off a surface only travels along a single plane. The CPL filter allows us to block out the light reflected along any given plane, thereby minimizing the reflections that we see in that plane. The ability to do this has many applications, such as returning contrast and saturation to an overly reflective scene… or in the case of this example, cutting down the reflections on the surface of the water so that we can see what lies beneath:
The Finished Image
With a little post-production work in Lightroom and Photoshop, the finished image can be seen below (click to view larger)…
You don’t need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on studio lighting to capture professional portrait photographs at home! In fact, I would go so far as to say that professionals who do spend exorbitant amounts of money on such equipment spend most of their professional careers overcharging clients to pay off said equipment; while any amateurs considering the purchase of such equipment would be better off spending their hard-earned cash on furthering their education of portrait techniques such as composition!
Here are some samples of portrait photography that I captured over the weekend using lighting and other equipment that I already had available to me at home. Click any image for a larger view, or read on below for more details about the lighting…
Using my knowledge of studio lighting techniques, I was able to setup a makeshift studio using the equipment that I already had available to me at home to achieve the results above. Instead of using an expensive backdrop, I had Kristen pose several feet in front of a plain, white wall…
Just as one would use a bright light to minimise shadows on the backdrop in a studio, I used a desk lamp with a bright, fluorescent tube installed to illuminate the backdrop… and this was where I metered the light for the shots.
To give life and definition to a model’s hair, professionals will generally add a diffuesed light off to the side of the model at head height. To emulate this setup using home equipment, I added two bedside lamps with traditional lightbulbs and frosted glass casing in the same position that I would in a professional studio. Coincidentally, adding these lights to the mix didn’t alter my light readings from the background wall at all.
Finally, I did incorporate one item of professional lighting equipment that I already had in my camera bag to flood light Kristen’s features… a mounted flash unit. Rather than pointing the flash directly at Kristen, I turned the flash head towards a nearby wall and extended the flash unit’s built-in reflector/diffuser panel to soften the light and reduce the contrast between highlights and shadows on her face. This is equivalent to the professional photographer’s use of a reflector kit to bounce softened light onto a subject rather than capturing harsh, direct light from a flash or other light source. I have also used sheets of bright, white cardboard to achieve the same effect in the past, when composition hasn’t allowed me to have a plain wall nearby.
As you can see, the lighting displayed in the final images is comparable to that produced by professional studio equipment… but it didn’t cost me a cent!
As much as I love my Cokin ND Grad filters and see them as one of the best investments I have made in my camera bag, I was disappointed to find that Cokin have not published any information on the topic of cleaning and maintaining their filters. Furthermore, there is very little information available on the topic around the net. Given that the filters are the most exposed pieces of equipment in a photo shoot, and often come home covered in dust or sea spray, I think such instructions are vital to their ongoing usability… so here I am, publishing the process that I use to clean my Cokin filters.
Naturally, this blog post comes with the usual disclaimer: it is purely an informational account of the process that I use to clean my Cokin filters, is totally unofficial, and of course, I accept no responsibility for any damage that may occur to your filters if you follow this process.
With that out of the way, the process is simple really:
- Fill a large bowl with warm water and a squirt of dishwashing detergent;
- Place filters in the bowl one-by-one;
- Wipe gently with a soft cloth;
- Stand filters on the bench for a while to drip dry;
- When dry, breathe on each side of the filter and polish with a soft, dry cloth;
- Place filters in protective cases and return to my camera bag.
This simple process has worked well for me without showing any signs of damaging the filters themselves. I have heard of others going out and spending their hard-earned cash on special cleaning fluids and so on, but I haven’t found it to be necessary… I’d much rather save my money for the next investment in my camera bag or for petrol to get me on location for more landscape photography.
If anybody has more effective methods for cleaning their Cokin filters, I’d love to hear them!
Rather than introducing myself with the typical “Hi, I’m a freelance photographer from Melbourne, Australia who is interested in landscapes and portraiture” blog post, I thought I would start off by setting the scene for the future of my blog by giving you a guided tour of my camera bag…
At the core of every photographer’s camera bag is, of course, the camera itself. In my case, it’s a Canon EOS 450D (it was previously an EOS 350D, and before that it was a film-based EOS 50). It has enough megapixels to generate fairly large prints in fine detail, and I don’t know how I ever lived without the LiveView functionality!
A camera is pretty useless without lenses, so I’ll cover them next. I’m carrying around two Canon kit lenses at the moment: a Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS lens is my prime, while a Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS lens is my zoom. I have been finding lately that I very rarely use the latter (even for portraiture), as I have been focusing on “getting up close and personal” with my subjects. Maybe I would use the zoom lens more often if I had some extension tubes to go with it.
The Cokin P-series filter system has proven to be one of my best investments in photography to date! With only three filters (the soft-edged P121 gradual neutral density filters providing 1-stop, 2-stops and 3-stops of light adjustment), my landscape photography has reached a whole new level of professionalism. In fact, when I look back at the landscapes I shot before purchasing these filters, I realise just how amateur I was back then!
I also carry around a Canon SpeedLite 430EX flash unit, but it generally just takes up space in my camera bag because I prefer to capture natural, ambient light wherever possible. That said, there are certain subjects that often can’t be captured nicely using the available light (animals and children are two subjects that come to mind), and this easy-to-use flash unit is a lifesaver when such opportunities come along.
There’s also a Canon RS60-E3 wired remote shutter release floating around somewhere. Extremely useful piece of equipment, and I have been frustrated to have to shoot without it since it decided to go for a swim recently. Not to worry… it’s time to upgrade to a wireless remote shutter release, which would be far more useful than its wired equivalent.
The rest of my camera bag is filled up with the usual array of cleaning equipment and other random bits and pieces, so I’ll finish up with one more essential item that is too large to fit in there with the rest: my tripod! Thanks to my brother’s generosity last Christmas, I now carry around a Manfrotto 190XB tripod with an 804RC2 ball head. Compared with the tripods that I used to own, the Manfrotto has offered me an amazing reduction in camera shake and, like the Cokin filters, has given me the opportunity to get “the perfect picture” more often.