August 20, 2015

Glow ParaPop: Problem Solver

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

While soft boxes are great for providing soft lighting, most of them are not very easily portable.  Many photographers have to weigh the pros and cons of taking one on location. Does the benefit (light quality) outweigh the hassle (teardown/setup time/bulkiness)? Are the soft boxes you use with your studio lights compatible with your location lighting? Many are not designed for use with speed lights. 

Glow ParaPop 28", part of Adorama's exclusive light modifier collection, solves all these problems. It’s a soft box that's hassle free in setup and takedown, and you can swap out the standard-issue speedlight mount for a studio strobe mount if needed. This parabolic soft box has a unique 12-sided shape and provides a 105-degree light spread. Opened, the Glow ParaPop 28" has a 28-inch diameter and is 19.5 inches deep. 

The speedlight mounting method is not brand-specific, so you can use the mount with a variety of different speedlights. Simply lock your flash into the coldshoe on the mount and slide the soft box up or down on the metal arms until the light fits through the speedlight opening. 

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I had to turn the ParaPop upside down (as evidenced by the logo) in order to fit my Nikon SB-800.

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The nice thing about this mounting bracket is that the speedlight doesn’t bear any weight. The soft box is held up by the mounting bracket, so there is no stress on the speedlight. 

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You can attach the mount directly to a light stand, tripod, even a hot shoe, using the various attachment options. Initially, I didn’t realize that the folded-under tilt attachment was there, and I screwed my lightstand into the threaded screw that secures the hotshoe in place. Interestingly, when folded closed like that, there is a coldshoe mount that you could use to attach the whole shebang to your camera’s hotshoe mount. I wouldn't recommend it, though.

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Assembly of the soft box is very simple.  Collapsed, the soft box stores much like an umbrella, with one key difference. There is no center pole. Instead, you click the rods of the soft box into place up by the mounting plate. This image (below) shows an in-progress view; the ones on the left have not yet been locked into place, and the one on the far right has been. 

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The construction is very well thought out, and I had no issues with unwanted collapse during use. For teardown there are two sets of “auto close buttons” on the back of the soft box near the mount plate. Each set of buttons releases half of the soft box so it can collapse down.

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To collapse the soft box, you need to squeeze the buttons together. I found it a little difficult for my small hands initially, but my husband was able to leverage the buttons with ease.

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Another plus for the ParaPop? I love that there is no need to fuss with Velcro fabric panels; everything is attached and ready to go, and it all folds down intact. That said, if you want to remove the front diffuser panel, it does attach with Velcro. The interior diffusion panel is held in place with snaps, so you can remove that, too.

While the ParaPop offers a convenient portable soft box option for location photographers, one thing that isn’t quite as convenient is the mounting plates. If you want to swap out the speedlight for a studio strobe, you’ll need to unscrew three tiny screws on the edge of the mounting plate. On the plus side, at least it can be swapped out. Below is the mount ring for my AlienBees strobes.

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In the image below you can see how I used the light in my studio for a client session. The ParaPop was used as the main with a  4x6-foot soft box for fill. At this point, I was testing out the studio strobe mount option, so you’ll notice the ParaPop is attached to my AlienBees light rather than a speedlight.

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And here is an image from the session:

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Overall, I have been really happy with this product. The soft box does a great job both in the studio and on location, and because it collapses easily, I have no qualms about taking it on location. I do wish that you could fold down the metal arms on the speedlight mount for storage or travel. On the flip side, I love that the speedlight mount does not put any stress on my speedlight; many speedlight soft boxes attach directly to the flash and can add undue stress.

The included carry bag is a nice feature, and if you’re carting a lot of gear around, you’ll appreciate the shoulder strap. Just be aware that you’ll need to find another place to stow the tilting speedlight mount; I couldn’t get it to fit in the case. Collapsed, the Glow ParaPop 28" measures 21x6.5x6.5 inches.

The Glow ParaPop 28 is available with either speedlight or studio strobe mounts. It has a base MSRP of $275. Strobe mount rings are sold bundled or separately ($35). 

Adorama has also announced a Glow ParaPop 38" and QuadraPop 24"x34".

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr.,CPP, has a portrait studio in Michigan; she blogs at BPhotoArt.com.

Polaris Karat Flash Meter: Special Edition Packed with Features

By Stan Sholik

Aspen Corporation has made Polaris light meters for 20 years, and in honor of the occasion they are releasing their most sophisticated model yet, the Polaris Karat Flash Meter. The Karat is designed for serious enthusiasts and professionals looking for an accurate and cost-effective meter for more control over their lighting decisions from continuous and flash sources.

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The Karat is thinner and lighter than previous Polaris models and much more so than my own meters. That makes me wonder about the long-term physical reliability in heavy professional use, especially considering its lack of weather sealing, but enthusiasts and studio professionals shouldn’t have any issues.

What matters most to users is the accuracy of the Karat, and I found that it tracks within 1/10 of an EV with my meters for both incident and reflected light readings in continuous light or flash modes. And if you are totally fanatical about all of your meters reading identically, as I am, the Karat allows you to dial in a ± 0.9 EV correction to your readings from the Set menu to balance it to your other meters.

A rotary dial allows you to extend the incident dome for incident readings or retract the dome for reflected light reading and storage. A separate sensor on the top of the meter handles the reflected light readings. Unfortunately, unlike some other Polaris meters, the incident dome does not swivel, a feature I would have liked. Also there is no provision to attach a narrower angle reflected light spot attachment.

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Main menu of the Polaris Karat
©Stan Sholik

The Karat is packed with other features however. In continuous light, metering modes allow you to choose the shutter speed and ISO and meter for the aperture, or choose the aperture and ISO and meter for the shutter speed. For those familiar with exposure value (EV) settings, there is also an EV metering mode. And in a bow to digital cameras, the A-ISO mode allows you to choose shutter speed and aperture settings, and the meter will display the ISO needed to achieve them.

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The continuous light shutter priority mode display indicating an aperture of f/4.6 ©Stan Sholik

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The EV display indication and EV of f/5.6 ©Stan Sholik

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The continuous light aperture priority mode display. Having selected an aperture of f/11, after metering the Karat indicates 1/4 sec at f/11.6 ©Stan Sholik

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In continuous light auto-ISO mode, you select an aperture and shutter speed and the Karat indicates the ISO needed to achieve that. ©Stan Sholik

For metering electronic flash, you choose the shutter speed in the T mode and meter for the aperture. A portion of the display also shows you the ratio of the flash exposure to the overall exposure in 1-percent increments. Unfortunately, for both continuous light and flash shutter speed priority modes, the available shutter speeds are limited to full stops with a few others available, but there is no 1/90, 1/180, or 1/360 and so on, for example.

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While flash metering, you choose a shutter speed and the Karat indicates the aperture, here f22.7. It also indicates the percentage of this exposure contributed by the flash (99%). ©Stan Sholik

Unique to the Karat as far as I know, is the FD mode that displays the flash duration. Flash duration is measured in a number of ways and nowhere is it made clear what method Polaris uses. I’m not sure how useful this information really is other than for relative comparison of one flash unit with another, but it is available.

In the continuous light and flash shutter priority modes and the continuous light EV mode, you can store up to three readings in memory with the results showing on the LCD display. The AVG button displays the average of the readings stored in memory. You can also see a contrast reading from the average reading to the reading in another part of the scene, for example the background, by pressing and holding the measuring button. The result is displayed as Δ (delta symbol) EV in the display.

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You can take up to three flash readings and store them in memory. Their values are displayed in different colors on the measuring value scale across the top of the display. ©Stan Sholik

You can’t measure multiple flashes directly as they build on one another. But you can measure one exposure, then press and hold the Multi button while you press the up arrow of the central Cross Key to change the aperture value, and the Karat will calculate the number of pops needed—up to 9—to achieve that aperture.

Unfortunately, moving between modes requires a 2- to 3-second hold of the Menu button, which is too long. Powering up and actual metering, though, is very fast.

Readings are displayed on a decent size display, but the aperture readings themselves are rather small. The base aperture value is visible enough in the F window of the display, but rather than displaying the increase from the base, e.g. f/11.5, the increase is shown as a tiny white line beneath the large base number overlaying one of ten black lines. The aperture is also roughly indicated in the measuring value scale running across the top of the display. But I prefer glancing at my meter and seeing the aperture displayed as f/11.5 rather than f/11 and having to count small lines. In Karat’s favor however, there are lines indicating 1/3 and 2/3 stops, which settings served us well enough with film.

In the studio and under lighting conditions other than direct sunlight, the LCD display is easy enough to read. However, even with the screen brightness at its highest setting, reading the aperture value and manipulating the menu in direct sunlight are problematic. And for those times when you are working alone, I would miss not having a tripod socket on the meter.

Power is provided by two AA batteries, and good for Polaris for providing a battery level meter.

If you do purchase a Polaris Karat, don’t expect to learn how to operate it from the English/Japanese insert that comes with the unit. Along with a hasty translation, the insert is useless to instruct you in the meter’s operation. It fails to mention that you can take cordless flash readings by simply choosing the flash mode and having your assistant activate the flash. I had been using a sync cord plugged into the base of the unit for metering until the cord fell out; I discovered the non-cord operation when my assistant triggered the flash when lowering the power. You will need to go to http://en.aspen.co.jp to download a real manual.

Though it's not really intuitive to use considering its market, once you've familiarized yourself with the Polaris Karat operation you should find its operation straightforward and extremely accurate. MSRP of the Polaris Karat is $329 with street prices around $290. The Karat is delivered with a padded case, lanyard, and 1-year warranty. 

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, "Shoot Macro" (Amherst Media), is now available.

July 24, 2015

Is Shoot-through For You? Westcott Omega Reflector

By Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

All images ©Betsy Finn

We all love multi-tools, especially when it comes to lighting equipment. But is more always better? The Westcott Omega Reflector with 10-in-1 function is an inventive take on the standard multi-function reflector. It differs from its predecessors in one key feature—a removable panel in the middle that creates a window for shooting through.

I decided to test out only the shoot-through capabilities of this reflector since the other functions are pretty standard. I wanted to know if the shoot-through capability is worth getting a new reflector. To begin, I experimented in the studio with the reflector and one backlight. Here’s the subject with only the backlight:

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By simply tipping and tilting the reflector, I was able to quickly create a variety of lighting options, both broad and narrow, as shown below.

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I'd like to emphasize that I'm not advocating the ’80s backlit hair effect in these images; my goal was to show how the light could be manipulated with the reflector, even when placed directly behind the subject. Hopefully it goes without saying that you’d adjust the placement of your hair light in relation to the placement of the reflector to eliminate the extreme backlit hair issue.

Here’s another in-studio portrait, this one created using two lights with the reflector as fill. As you can see in this pullback, I used a 4x6-foot soft box as my main, a hair light above and behind the subject, and the reflector in front.

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Here’s the final image taken through the reflector.

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And here’s an image taken with the reflector removed (below).

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I think this effect could have been achieved without using the shoot-through aspect of the Omega, and I did find the panel opening a little restrictive in framing my portrait. As you might have noted in my previous example, the reflector was very close to my subject, visible within what would have been a three-quarter length shot at most.

On location the shoot-through panel was a little more useful. I used an LED light as the hair light and placed the Omega reflector between the camera and my subject for use as the main light. Here’s a pullback:

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The final portrait definitely benefited from having both a hair light and the Omega’s shoot-through panel feature. Here’s the result with the reflector:

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And while not the same exact angle, this image gives you an idea of what the portrait would have looked like given the natural lighting in the room:

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There was one thing that I didn’t really notice until I was editing my images. The panel, when removed, creates a distinct black square in the center of your catchlight. You may or may not like the effect.

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Some final thoughts on using the Omega with the shoot-through panel removed: This really shines for headshots and closely framed images or if you’re working on location and don’t have room to set up multiple lights. The shoot-through window isn’t practical for, say, full-length images. You would need to move the reflector far enough away to frame the entire subject, and at that point it’s no longer very effective as a reflector. Bottom line: the Omega definitely has its uses. You’ll have to decide whether the shoot-through feature is worth upgrading. Definitely consider it as an addition to your arsenal if you work on location and want to minimize the equipment you carry.

The Westcott Omega Reflector is 38x45 inches, folds down to a 14-inch circle for storage, and comes with a storage bag. It retails for $119.90. For more information on the Omega Reflector, visit http://www.fjwestcott.com/reflectors-scrims/omega-reflector.

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr.,CPP, has a portrait studio in Michigan. She blogs at BPhotoArt.com.

 

July 22, 2015

Can 17hats Fit Your Style of Business?

By Ron Dawson

When you’re running a small studio, or if you’re a solopreneur, having a solid project management (PM) and customer relationship management (CRM) system is imperative if you want to stay organized and maximize productivity and effectiveness. As a project management junkie, I feel like I’ve tried them all. Basecamp. FreedCamp. Trello. Teamwork. ShootQ. Asana (my current PM of choice). And even my own DIY concoction of Google Apps, Evernote, and Dropbox. Now one of the latest programs to enter the game is 17hats.

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The Verdict

Let me cut to the chase. 17hats is promising, but it has too many drawbacks to make it worthwhile for me. That is what you need to keep in mind when reviewing any kind of PM or CRM solution: Does it work for you? I liken it to watching a movie. One person’s masterpiece is another person’s mess. As creatives, we all work and think differently. Some of us are more right-brained than left-brained. For these reasons, what works great for you, may not be so hot for someone else.

You also have to take into account the needs of your business. Those of you with a team of five or more people in your studio shooting 100+ events per year will have needs that are radically different from a freelancer or solopreneur shooting two or three dozen jobs in a year.

The Name Says It All

The name of the program gives insight into what it does and who it’s for. It’s designed for the businessperson who wears most (if not all) of the proverbial hats in the business.

In its current state, though, it’s a good example of an application that seems to be a jack of all trades, but master of none. It has accounting, CRM, and PM features, which on the surface seem great; but when it comes to practicality, the limitations of each make the whole problematic.

Pros and Cons

General functions

  • Pro: You can track more than one calendar, and even sync your Google Calendar as well as Gmail.
  • Pro: When you connect email and calendar, reminders show up in your Overview page.

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  • Pro/Con: You can import contacts from another system, but you have to export them as CSV, vCard, or LDIF first. There is no connect feature (e.g. granting access to your Google contacts to be imported directly).
  • Pro/Con: You can create forms for collecting leads, then embed them on your website. But, they do not connect to email services such as MailChimp, AWeber, etc. I can’t imagine they are not working on this feature. It’s a no-brainer.
  • Con: Notes features (To-do notes) do not work in Chrome. This alone would be a deal-killer for me. I tried it on both my Chromebook and the Chrome browser on my Mac. I had to switch to Safari.
  • Con: No mobile app
  • Con: Photographers are visual people, and many of you will have a problem with their aesthetics. I (like others) am not a fan of the Jenna Sue font for all the main headings. You can, however, change the background.

Project Management

  • Pro: It has workflows that allow you to set up recurring activities, even activity-triggered steps such as sending a Welcome email once a contract is signed.

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  • Con: Cannot assign to-do’s to people.
  • Con: No client login or collaboration
  • Con: No threads or conversations for projects or to-do’s
  • Con: Creating a new project is not intuitive. When I was on the project tab, I looked for a button to “create a new project.” There isn’t one. You create a new project from a contact page. I often have projects that don’t have a specific contact. I did a “how do you start a project” search in the Help search field, and there were no results related to starting a project.

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Projects must be connected to contacts.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

  • Pro: You can categorize contacts as client, hot lead, cold prospect, or other.

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  • Pro: Ability to tag contacts as imported. However, if you have a large number of contacts, you will want to import “leads” separate from “clients” so that you can group tag them. Otherwise you’ll need to do it one by one.
  • Pro: You can create template contracts with logo branding.

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  • Pro/Con: Contracts support e-signature, but there is no “Initial” feature.
  • Pro: History of contract in upper right-hand of signed contract
  • Con: Importing contacts was a bit confusing. I Imported 620 contacts and got an “Import successful” message, but they weren’t there, even after two tries. I then realized, by accident, that you have to select all of the contacts you want to import using the checkbox. I thought the check boxes were only for applying a tag (which I didn’t want to do, so I ignored it). I hadn’t noticed the “Select Imports You Want to Import” heading. It would be helpful if the program would say “No Imports Selected” when none were.

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Caption: You must actually select the checkbox next to “Name” so that all the names are selected. Because “tagging” is so prominent, I thought that checkbox was for tagging.

  • Con: On the Contacts page I kept accidentally searching the “tags” field when looking for a contact. The correct search box is at the very top. From a UI design standpoint, this should be within the “tabbed” active area. As it is, it’s outside that area. (I understand this is a universal search box that appears on every page. That could be considered a Pro, unless you’re actually on the contacts page and looking within the contacts area for a search box.)

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The search field within the tabbed “Contacts” area is actually used to search for tags. You must use the search box at the top to search for clients.

Con: While on a contact’s page in Chrome, clicking on the email hotlink doesn’t work.

Accounting

I encourage you use a fully functional accounting program (e.g. QuickBooks, FreshBooks, Xero, etc.) regardless of what PM or CRM solution you use.

  • Pro: Invoicing
  • Pro: Multiple payment options for your clients to pay you. It currently supports Stripe, Paypal and Authorize.net.
  • Pro: Time tracking
  • Pro: You can record payments manually
  • Pro: Ability to connect your bank
  • Pro: You can add a payment schedule
  • Pro: You can do (simple) financial reporting
  • Con: Doesn’t appear to be a way to apply one payment to multiple invoices.
  • Con: Don’t see a way to export transactions to QuickBooks or other accounting program
  • Con: Lacks many of the other features of a traditional accounting software (tax reports, accessibility for your CPA, balance sheet, etc.) 

Pricing

17hats has a 15-day trial period, so it may be worth checking out. Prices start at $29/month for a month-to-month plan, and are as low as $17/month if you pay for two years up front. For many, the price for what you get may be well worth the investment.

June 19, 2015

Big Bang for the Buck: Flashpoint Zoom Li-on Flash

By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

The price of adding a flash to your DSLR equipment collection can be rather hefty with top-of-the-line Canon and Nikon speedlights costing around $550 and the Q-flash Trio (QF8 basic) around $650. The Flashpoint Zoom Li-on, available exclusively from Adorama, on the other hand, is priced at a very reasonable $180, but how does it perform?

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The Flashpoint Zoom Lion appears to be well constructed with a weightiness to it (slightly less than one pound with the battery), and it looks a lot like its more expensive competition. It has many desirable features found on more expensive flashes such as ETTL, multi-strobe capability, high-speed synch, rear curtain sync, and manual. If you are using more than one, you can program one to function as a master and another as a slave unit. The published guide number for the flash is 110 when zoomed to the 105mm setting and the units I received performed to that specification.

The first unusual feature about the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on is its use of a proprietary rechargable battery instead of four AA batteries. The manufacturer publishes the life of one battery at 650 full-power flashes, and a spare is only $50. In my testing over a 6-hour span I got 467 full-power flashes. I found that with the battery at full charge and triggering a full power flash the recycle time was a approximately 1.5 seconds, meeting manufacturer claims. At one point during  testing I triggered the flash for 30 consecutive full-power pops. When I tried for more flashes the over-heat sensor had kicked in and slowed the triggering to approximately 10 seconds between pops. I let the flash sit for about 10 minutes before the over-heat indicator turned off. Once the safety feature was off I could again trigger the flash quickly and the recycle time was back down to around 1.5 seconds. For my portrait work, I almost never use a flash on full power, so using less than full power most of the time could possibly yield close to 1,000 flashes from one battery charge.

One discovery I had to find out the hard way was that out-of-the-box, Custom Function #1 is set to “auto power off.” I decided to try the flash units at an event I was attending. I put one on a light stand off to the side of the subject to cross-illuminate the scene and I had a second flash unit on camera to light the overall scene. With CF #1 set to enable, the flash kept powering itself off after 90 seconds. This would be a great way to save the battery, but I could not get the unit to turn back on with the remote, so it’s not a great way to learn about a new piece of equipment.

I hadn’t brought the manual with me, so I didn't know which custom function needed to be changed. Once I returned to the studio and discovered the root issue I disabled the auto power off function. Unfortunately, in a subsequent attempt to test the flash I arrived on site to photograph the subject only to find that the batteries were completely drained. I was perplexed because I had completely charged the batteries after the previous job. My conclusion was that I had accidently forgotten to turn the units off when I was done, and because they never auto-shut-off they drained the battery completely. So my caution to you is to consider disabling the auto-power-off feature, but be careful to shut the unit off or remove the battery when not in use.

For an additional $40 you can purchase a Flashpoint Commander Transmitter and Receiver set for the flash, and it looks to be well worth the investment. The receiver plugs right into the side of the flash unit (see below) and can be programmed for a specific channel and group. This will allow you to control up to 16 units per channel.

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©Don Chick

The transmitter can be hot shoe mounted or attached through a PC connection. While this configuration allows you to adjust power settings and trigger the unit from a distance of up to 150 feet, you cannot change between the various modes (ETTL, Manual, Multi). Personally I preferred to use the flash unit in manual mode, and the transmitter enabled me to control the flash output power in 1/3 settings from Full power to 1/128 power or off.

The controller for the Flashpoint StreakLight 360 did not have the PC cord capability, so I could only use it mounted on the hot shoe of the camera. The transmitter I received for the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on had a 2.5mm jack, which enabled me to have one flash on my Canon hot shoe and to attach a cable from the controller and plug it into my Canon’s PC input. This setup allowed me to have one flash on camera and control a second flash mounted off camera. The image of Abbye (below) was taken with two flashes. The main light was off to one side to provide modeling to her face, and the second was behind her to provide separation for her hair from the background. The unit that was illuminating her hair had a Rogue Flash amber gel to color the light.

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©Don Chick

I really liked the wireless controllability, but I did have two issues that the manufacturer could easily remedy. The big issue is the ease with which you can accidentally change the group setting dial on the receiver to a different group. I don’t know how many times I accidentally changed the setting while using the flash. It’s especially frustrating when you are in a time crunch and you set the strobe and return to camera position thinking everything is all set only to find you can't trigger the flash.

The second issue I had was with the transmitter going through batteries. When I would finish a job and forget to turn the unit off, the batteries would be dead by the next day. I use rechargeable batteries, but if you are on a job and don’t remember to bring your spare batteries you’ll have a problem. I found the best solution was to remove the batteries when I finished the job rather than try to remember to shut the unit off and hope there was battery power for the next job.

The images below from a commercial shoot for a local casting company. You can see the two-light setup in the first image and the image taken of the craftsman in the second. The umbrella provided a soft quality of light to control overall scene contrast, while the bare flash provided directionality to the light.

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Above you'll see the lighting setup and the final image. One Flashpoing Zoom Li-on used with a shoot-through umbrella gave a  soft quality of light for overall contrast while a direct light from a second unit provided directionality. ©Don Chick

With the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on from Adorama, the value for your dollar is very high. Yes, there are a couple issues that the manufacturer could address, but even taking them into account the cost/benefit makes it worth taking a serious look.

June 17, 2015

Adobe Photoshop CC (2015): A Mixed Bag of Changes

By Stan Sholik

After a recent update to the Adobe Creative Cloud (CC) app that seemed to go much smoother on Windows machines than on Macs, Adobe has given us an update to Photoshop, titled Photoshop CC (2015), along with Lightroom and Bridge updates. While there are a few areas where operational speed has improved in the new Photoshop, and some new tools, the biggest news for photographers may be a feature that is external to Photoshop but integrated into the program—Adobe Stock.

But first, the Photoshop news. You should notice speed improvements when using the heal and patch tools, with the heal tool operating in real time while you brush. Landscape photographers will welcome the new DeHaze tool in the Effects tab of Adobe Camera Raw. DeHaze utilizes a combination of other ACR tools to remove or add aerial haze to photos. It is very effective although it introduces color shifts with some images that can usually be corrected with other tools in Camera Raw. But don’t bother using it if faces are visible—you’ll never correct the changes to flesh tones. DeHaze also finds its way into Lightroom and Lightroom Mobile apps for CC members, but not into Lightroom 6, at least at present.

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Side by side views of the effectiveness of the new DeHaze filter in Camera Raw with the original on the left and the DeHaze result on the right. ©Stan Sholik

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The DeHaze tool is effective in removing haze, but the color shift with flesh tones is a challenge to remove. ©Stan Sholik

Another interesting addition is the Transform on Drop checkbox in the tool panel options of the Content-Aware Move Tool. When checked, you can rotate and scale the selection after moving it, and the selection blends automatically into the new position if you have chosen the Structure and Color settings wisely.

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The new Content-Aware checkbox in the Content-Aware Move tool allows you to quickly resize and rotate part of the image after you move it and automatically blend the moved section into your photo. ©Stan Sholik

The latest update to Adobe Camera Raw added HDR and panorama stitching tools. Photoshop 2015 is fighting back by updating its Photomerge tool. There is a new Photomerge dialog box and the ability to use content-aware merging to fill in areas that would otherwise be transparent and require cropping. Given the right content close to those otherwise transparent areas (sky, ground, etc.) this new feature works very well.

The final major addition is a Noise panel for all of the blur tools in the Blur Gallery. In prior versions of Photoshop, using the blur tools resulted in an inconsistent look between the blurred and non-blurred areas because of the smoothness of the blurred areas. In Photoshop 2015 you can add grain, Gaussian, or uniform noise to the blurred areas. There are sliders to control the amount, size, roughness, color and highlights of the noise. Used carefully, the noise options can make for a better match between the two areas.

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There are other features in Photoshop 2015, such as Artboards and enhanced connectivity between Adobe CC apps through the Libraries panel, mainly of interest to designers, particularly web designers. But the most important change, for better or worse for photographers, is the incorporation of a direct link to Adobe Stock photos in the Library panel.

ps2015 _002.pngAt the acquisition of the stock agency Fotolia in January of this year, Adobe promised “to radically simplify the buying and selling of stock content.” Photoshop 2015 begins the fulfillment of this promise. Adobe says that 85% of the buyers of stock content use Adobe products in their work, and 90% of the creators of stock content are Adobe product users. With access to Adobe Stock only a mouse click away in any CC app, the benefits to Adobe are clear. Time will only tell the impact this will have on stock creators and the stock industry as a whole.

Stock photo buyers pay $9.99 to purchase a royalty free Adobe Stock photo. Subscriptions are available to lower the cost to buyers. A ten image per month plan is available for $49.99 per month or $29.99 per month if the buyer is a CC member. A 750 image per month subscription is available for $199.99 per month for everyone.

Photographers are able to contribute images to Adobe Stock directly through www.stock.adobe.com/contribute. You simply need to sign up as a contributor through the Sell Images link barely visible at the bottom of the page. You can also sign up through Fotolia.com. Be sure to read all of the information at https://us.fotolia.com/Info/Contributors about file specs, keywording, and service conditions. Royalties paid to photographers are at best 33% of sales on Adobe Stock, ranging from a high of $3.30 per On Demand (single image) sale to $0.99 if the purchaser is buying through the 10 images a month plan to a minimum guaranteed $0.25 per sale if purchased by a 750 images a month plan buyer.

Photoshop 2015 plays the usual havoc with your plug-ins and any scripts you have created. You must manually move the folders from Photoshop 2014 and hope that they still function. For me, the Alien Skin plug-ins don’t work at all, the onOne extension has disappeared, but other plug-ins work fine. Now the third-party developers have to deal with Photoshop 2015.

So there are features to like, transitions to dislike, and who knows what impact Adobe Stock will have on the market. But clearly, Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom 6 users are losing more ground to the latest releases of Photoshop and Lightroom in the Adobe Creative Cloud.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, "Shoot Macro" (Amherst Media), is now available.

 

PROS

  • Improved speed
  • DeHaze in Adobe Camera Raw
  • Content-Aware in Photomerge
  • Transform on Drop option in Content-Aware Move tool

 

CONS

  • Some plug-ins and extensions no longer work
  • DeHaze filter not usable with people

May 26, 2015

Lensbaby Velvet 56: Step Into the Pictorialist School

By Stan Sholik

Everything old becomes new again, and with the new Velvet 56 lens from Lensbaby that is a very good thing. Long before computers were used to design lenses and long before aspherical lens elements, camera lenses were fairly simple combinations of convex and concave lenses. These lenses tended to exhibit a high level of spherical aberration resulting in soft images and blooming highlights at large apertures, but excellent sharpness when stopped down.

The Pictorialist school of photography, which ruled the photographic world in the first decades of the 20th century, used lenses of this type to show that photographs could produce images of great beauty and expressiveness. As lens design and technology, and photography itself advanced, the f.64 Group revolted against the Pictorialist school and changed photography forever by favoring sharp images with great depth of field.

Now, Lensbaby, well known for their innovative lenses that allow photographers to see in new ways, has created a lens that lets us see in an old way—the way of early portrait and Pictorialist photographers. This new lens is the Velvet 56, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.6 that is available for Canon, Nikon, and Pentax full-frame and APS-C DSLRs.

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©Jerome Hart

Utilizing a lens design that consists of four elements in three groups that does not correct for spherical aberration, the Velvet 56 produces beautifully soft images with glowing highlights when used at f/1.6, and crisp, sharp images at its minimum f/16 aperture. Between its maximum and minimum apertures, images smoothly transition from soft and ethereal to sharp and contrasty, but with a smoothness to the tonality that is uncharacteristic of modern lenses designed for digital cameras. By choosing the appropriate aperture you are able to photograph a dreamy backlit photo of the bride and an ultra sharp photo of the wedding party without changing lenses. Soft photos of a new mother with her baby and sharp photos of executives are equally possible with the Velvet 56. And the middle apertures with their smooth tonal gradations are ideal for smoothing skin tones in portraits, minimizing the time needed for later retouching.

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©Victoria Hederer Bell

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An added bonus in the Velvet 56 is the ability to focus to half life size, giving the choice of dreamily soft close-up photos with very shallow depth of field, strikingly sharp images of the same subject with far greater depth of field, or something in between according to your vision. Simply having this capability in one lens has prompted me to experiment with new approaches to some of my close-up images.

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The Velvet 56 focus to 1/2 life size enabling glowing close-up photos wide open, velvety-smooth photos at medium apertures, or sharp captures at f/16. ©Stan Sholik

There are two models of the Velvet 56. Both feature all-metal construction. The Velvet 56 is finished in black; the Velvet 56 SE is silver. Other than the finish, the two are identical, although the SE is not available for Pentax. I tested the SE model on several full-frame Nikon bodies, primarily a Nikon D750.

Using the lens is not without its operational quirks. Accurate focus is the main one. Both Velvet 56 models are manual focus and focusing is no easy task given the softness of the lens at its wider apertures.  This makes focusing something of a hit or miss affair, with a lot of misses at the wider, softer apertures where contrast is low. On the other hand, those final images were interesting for their impressionistic qualities, with emotional response trumping technical considerations.

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Even when your focus is not perfect at f/1.6, the impressionistic result can be satisfying. ©Stan Sholik

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At moderate apertures such as f/5.6, the result is somewhere between sharp and soft, but the tonality is beautiful. ©Stan Sholik

Nikon bodies must be switched to manual focus mode in order for the focus indicator in the viewfinder to confirm that the area of the subject under the focus point is actually in focus. And since the focus ring rotates in the “Canon” direction, focus direction indicators in Nikon bodies show the opposite direction you need to rotate the focus ring to bring the subject into focus.

The lenses are also manual aperture. Stopping the lens down to take advantage of its sharpness darkens the image in the viewfinder, adding another complication if the sensitivity of the camera’s focusing system is not great enough to confirm exposure.

Setting exposure can also be an issue. Nikon photographers have the choice of using the lens in manual or aperture priority mode. On Nikons, aperture is set using an aperture ring like the one found on pre-G series Nikkors for manually setting the aperture, not by using the sub-command dial on the camera body. Fortunately for Nikon users, the aperture ring rotates in the same direction as pre-G series lenses, but opposite to that of older Canon lenses. Unfortunately the aperture value is not displayed in the viewfinder, nor is the aperture recorded in the EXIF metadata. However, exposures in aperture priority mode were consistently accurate as they were using the exposure indicator in the viewfinder in manual exposure mode. Canon photographers are limited to aperture priority exposure mode only using the exposure ring.

The black Lensbaby Velvet 56 retails for $499.95 and the silver LE edition for $599.95. At a time in photographic history when modern lenses and high resolution digital sensors are designed to show the finest detail in our subjects, perhaps it is time to step backward and reinvent part of our imaging style by using a look from the past that served photographers well in the early years of photography.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, “Shoot Macro” (Amherst Media), is now available.

 

May 21, 2015

Comparing Lightroom 6/CC: New, Notable, Pros, and Cons

By Stan Sholik

LR_boxangle.jpgFor one final release, or so the general consensus feels, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom retains its dual personality. Creative Cloud (CC) versions are labeled CC and perpetual license versions are known as Lightroom 6. The principal difference between the two is connectivity, a concept behind which Adobe is putting a lot of energy and resources, which I'll go over. But first, the similarities between the two versions.

There are enough major and minor new features in Lightroom 6/CC (Lightroom) to warrant the release of a new version, although many may not be particularly relevant to your business. Two new merge tools—High Dynamic Range and Panorama—found in the Photo > Photo Merge dropdown menu are straightforward functions that do their job, but with few options. The previews are limited in size and you cannot zoom in, but the results are saved as DNG files that allow further editing in Lightroom.

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Lightroom’s new HDR merge feature produces natural looking images. They generally require additional adjustments in the Develop module as I have done here. ©Stan Sholik

Facial recognition is also new, although it doesn’t seem to work any better than facial recognition in other software. Heads turned directly to the camera are recognized and successfully stacked. Heads turned even slightly away are more of an issue, and the occasional pet or section of grass find their way into the mix also. With People selected from the View menu, Lightroom runs facial recognition on the active folder. By clicking on the Lightroom identity plate you can un-pause face detection and the program will look for faces in your entire catalog if you have the time and energy for that.

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Facial recognition is a new feature in Lightroom, and it works about as well as it does in competing software.

Should Lightroom miss a person, you can add names to individuals by choosing the Draw Face Region icon in the Library toolbar, drawing a box around the face and adding a name. Just remember to have a unique name for everyone.

Once you tag faces, Lightroom does a decent job of finding the face in other folders. People’s names become keywords and you can search on the name in the Keyword List to show all of the instances where that person appears in a photo in your catalog.

I just have to question the logic behind incorporating simplistic versions of HDR, panorama, and facial recognition into Lightroom. They strike me as more of a lure to move enthusiasts from Photoshop Elements (where facial recognition and panorama creation already exist) to a CC subscription than as serious tools for professionals.

One set of new features in Lightroom that professionals may find useful is the expanded capabilities in the Slideshow module. The Music panel now allows you to include up to 10 mp3, AAC, or ALAC music clips that you can reorder by dragging up or down. Lightroom will fade from one to another so there will be constant music during the entire slideshow.

Bigger changes can be found in the Slideshow Mode section of the Playback panel. In the Automatic mode you can allow Lightroom to automatically add pan and zoom effects to the show, with you selecting the speed of the effects with a slider. You can sync slides to the beat of the music, or you can choose a time for crossfades between slides and click Sync to Music to have Lightroom automatically calculate how long each slide will play based on the total duration of your music. With these new Lightroom features I was able to create an HD video (mp4) slideshow for a local Little League from photos that I had taken, and the League is thinking about ordering them for each of the teams next year.

The ability to view, adjust, and share photos, videos, and slideshows on your iOS devices and Android phone has been available in previous versions of Lightroom, but the added connectivity to social media and your clients, as well as Android tablets, is new to Lightroom CC, and distinguishes the CC version from Lightroom 6.

Connectivity between your desktop, laptop, and mobile devices is handled through collections. You create a collection in Lightroom CC or in the Lightroom Mobile app on your mobile device, and if Sync is active, the collection immediately appears on all synced devices connected to the internet. Collections made on your mobile devices appear in a LR mobile collection in the Lightroom CC Collections panel on your desktop or laptop computer.

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You enable syncing collections from your desktop copy of Lightroom CC to Lightroom mobile by clicking the disclosure triangle next to the nameplate and choosing Sync with Lightroom mobile from the menu.

The synchronization is handled through your personal space in lightroom.adobe.com, which you access with your Adobe CC login. Once logged in you see the synchronized images as a flat view of collections or as a segmented view by day and year. In the Collections view, you can share each collection to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, and more, or you can share each collection privately by sending a link to those whom you want to view it. You can do this from your mobile devices also, but I prefer working through lightroom.adobe.com on my desktop computer. With Lightroom CC on your desktop or laptop it is easy to create a general portfolio collection, a specific portfolio collection for a targeted assignment request, and portrait, wedding, event, sports, or any other portfolio and have them instantly available to show on your mobile device and to send links to potential clients. Updating any portfolio is as simple as adding or replacing photos in the appropriate collection in Lightroom CC.

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By signing in to your account at lightroom.adobe.com or your mobile device you can see and share your synced collections.

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Sharing individual photos privately or to social media is easy with lightroom.adobe.com and from your mobile devices.

And for iPad users, Adobe pushes connectivity even further. Two relatively new free storytelling apps, Adobe Slate and Adobe Voice, allow you to create and share stories based on your images. These could be behind-the scenes insights into a photo session, a wedding story, a travelogue, or whatever you can imagine. Slate offers a variety of templates and themes to get you started. You simply add text using one of the available fonts, and your photos, selection motion options or a magazine-style layout, then share the result publicly or by sending a link. Viewers can see your story on any connected device without the use of an app. Slate stories take only minutes to create and I’m looking forward to sending them to clients as part of email blasts.

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With Lightroom CC you can use a collection to create a story using Adobe Slate on your iPad.

Adobe Voice takes storytelling one step further by letting you tell your story with your own voice for a more personal connection. Where it is becoming increasingly difficult to make personal connections in business and to separate yourself from the competition, Voice creates a possible way. The finished Voice project is a short video that you can upload to social media, add to a blog, or send to clients as a link.

Within both Adobe Slate and Adobe Voice is an option to add images from your Lightroom Mobile collections on the iPad. Lightroom CC in conjunction with Lightroom Mobile creates connectivity options and social media connections that have the potential to increase your marketing options in ways that are open to your creative solutions.

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Lightroom CC now connects to Lightroom Mobile on Apple and Android tablets. Since neither tablet is color managed, images look different on each and likely different than on your color managed desktop or laptop.

Lightroom 6 is available with a perpetual license for $149 ($142.99 street). Lightroom CC is a “free” download as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan and the Adobe Creative Cloud Complete Plan.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, "Shoot Macro" (Amherst Media), is now available.


 

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