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December 2013 Archives

December 12, 2013

Pride in Your Ride: Motorcycle Photography by Steve Isaacs

We asked photographer Steve Isaacs, featured on pages 22-23 in our December issue, to tell us about his studio design and the setup behind his motorcycle portrait photography.

By Steve Isaacs

We’ve put together a very effective lighting and backdrop setup, which you see here, for our in-studio motorcycle photography. 


To get an idea of scale the back studio wall is 24 feet across and the white roll-up flooring is 12 feet wide by 24 feet long. I set this at an angle in the studio because the concrete floor is not level. In this position the floor is fairly level, making it easier to stand the panels and not have large gaps at the bottom of a panel where it sits on the floor. I had a problem with the foam core bending if left standing for very long, so I taped 1-inch PVC pipe to the back side of the foam core. Those are the white ribs you see against the black side of the panels. This kept the panels light weight, making setup and teardown easy, even with one person. The canvas you see on the floor and under the table provides a surface to roll the bike in and not leave tire tracks everywhere.

The motorcycle studio setup uses an 18-foot truss to suspend three Paul C. Buff Einstein flash heads in soft boxes overhead to provide the main lighting. The reverse side of a 12x24-foot linoleum floor, painted white, serves as the floor and can be rolled up for transport. Foam core is suspended at each side using simple backdrop stands and bars to create 12-foot false walls at each side with angled panels at the front to reflect more light to the side of the motorcycle. We drape black cloth over the setup to black out anything overhead that would otherwise be reflected off the motorcycle.


When I don’t have a motorcycle in studio, I use this gray stool with a 10-foot PVC pipe as stand-in to set exposure and the flash settings. I can check shadows and adjust the light for a usable (maskable) separation from the white background.

It's the combination of all of these white surfaces that produce the even lighting at the side of the motorcycle. The overhead soft boxes create the highlights that accent the curves of the tank and fenders. The back wall is also made of foam core suspended on backdrop stands, making a 16-foot false wall. Additional flash heads at each side and pointed toward the back wall illuminate the wall to create a complete white background when desired. Two more flash heads located at the front of the setup add depth and highlights when creating portraits with the motorcycles. We use Paul C. Buff heads because I can control them using a remote mounted on the camera. This saves considerable effort when adjusting the intensity of the overhead flash heads.


We use two cameras during the session. One camera is mounted on a tripod some 40 feet from the motorcycle and at a low angle (18 inches) for the profile images and stays on the tripod. This is tethered to a laptop computer using a USB interface. We use the second camera hand-held to capture closeup detail images and for the portrait images. An Eye-Fi card in the second camera wirelessly transmits the images to the laptop where the client can view the images as they are being captured. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is configured to automatically import from a watched folder, which simplifies workflow later and shows the images as they are captured.


Having the client immediately see the images live during the session has helped tremendously to produce the images the client wants. Though some photographers don’t like the client to see the images before they're finaled, I find the immediate feedback very important. I liken it to a jazz musician playing to a live audience. I do have to educate the client a bit so that the he or she understands the images are only the starting point for the final result. I don't want skewed expectations to confuse the session. 

After capturing the images I spend time in Photoshop to create the composites, which become the final images. This is where my work is distinct from others’.


©Steve Isaacs Photography

This finished family portrait shows the type of composite we’re known for. The bike owner didn't want to have his picture taken, so he had his bike stand in. That’s the family crest in the corner. A local airbrush artist created the Celtic theme, and the bike was built by a local custom house, the culmination of a four-year labor of love. The owner wanted me to photograph the bike before he started the engine for the first time, and the family portrait was impromptu on the spot. 

The image above was taken using the prototype portable indoor setup. All of the parts are there and can be loaded into a trailer to be transported to different indoor locations.

This studio setup is one commonly used for advertising and magazine photography. I’d like to construct a slightly larger version of this setup to use with automobiles at some point. With the addition of flash heads with snoots for depth is working quite well for product photography (see below).


Steve Isaacs Photography hopes to unveil a portable version of this studio at the 2014 Inland Northwest Motorcycle Show with a goal of one hour for setup and one hour for teardown. We considered designing a setup that we could use outdoors, but we’ve tabled that idea due to of concerns about wind and rain along with dust control, which would require a tent and additional flooring, making the setup significantly more expensive and difficult to transport and set up.


Parabolic Reflector Marries Diffuser: Flashpoint Glow HexaPop 24

By Pete Wright, M.Photog.Cr. 

Off Camera flash is all the rage right now and the tools used to alter quality of light are countless. Flashpoint jumped into the game with their introduction of the Glow HexaPop 20 and 24 speedlight reflector diffusers—a product that melds the aspects of a parabolic reflector with a soft box. The HexaPop gives photographers the ability to adapt their speedlights for more of a studio light feel that’s less harsh than a speedlight alone.


The Glow HexaPop comes with a carrying case, a mounting bracket that attaches the parabolic reflector and diffuser with the flash, and a stand adapter for mounting the entire setup on a light stand. If you don’t want to use the tilting stand adapter, the mounting bracket comes with its own male cold shoe for stands that can accommodate them. 



©PW Photography

This portrait was taken with a Quantum Q Flash T-5dR on manual at 1/16 power. The camera was a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L  lens at 165mm. Exposure: 1/80 second at f/4, ISO 400.  

The HexaPop assembles relatively simply. The metal rods on the mount bracket fit into the slots on the speedring of the umbrella. Once in, the entire assembly can be slipped up and down and tightened in place to accommodate the height of a variety of flashes. The same mounting bracket has a female cold shoe that slides back and forward in a channel and then tightens into place to further accommodate flashes. The umbrella itself has 6 hinged rods that connect to the speedring and go to the diffuser end. They pull back into adjoining slots, then click and lock in place. After popping all six rods into place, the entire assembly is ready to mount onto the tilt bracket and place on a stand. 


Note, for those shooting with a flash that requires a triggering device, you will either need to purchase an additional cold shoe to screw into the track or find another way of mounting it, as only one cold shoe is included in the package. Now that you’re set up, mount your flash and you are basically ready to shoot—the setup is quick and easy. 

Improvements in few areas of concern could have made the HexaPop an even stronger purchase and could potentially be addressed in future versions.  First, the front diffusion panel is permanently affixed to the softbox which prevents opening the front to access the front of the flash.  This is a concern primarily for people who shoot with a Quantum type flash that requires the front bulb to be removed from the flash from a front access.  Also, having the option to remove the front panel and use the HexaPop solely as a reflector would be a nice touch to add versatility.

Secondly, there are many key areas on the box where there are metal-to-plastic connections, which while secure, may over time weaknen and tend to have a little bit of flex and play. Switching the entire assembly to metal may add a minor amount of weight to the box and probably a few bucks to the price tag, but having the security of knowing you are purchasing a well-built, long-lasting product would be worth it.

My initial feeling about the buttons that release rods for collapsing down the entire box, was that they were a little too hard to pull for release and that the resulting thud when pressed was a little disconcerting. However, after working with the HexaPop for a while I was actually glad that it was a strong setup and required a little more effort to collapse. I realized I wouldn't want it to collapse by itself because of a weakness in the production or because someone accidentally tapped a button on it. So this actually became a strength in the product to me.

Overall, I think the product is actually pretty solid. It’s easy to use, quick to set up, and creates a very nice light when photographing. The hexagon-shaped silver reflector umbrella with the front diffusion panel gives a pleasant, round catch light in the eyes, which is certainly a plus for portraits. The areas that I felt could be improved don’t affect its performance, but could improve the Glow HexaPop if they are addressed. With a street price of $139.95 for the 24-inch version and $109.95 for the 20-inch, it is a safe investment if you want to turn your speedlight into portable studio-style flash. 

Sony A7/A7R First Impressions

By Theano Nikitas

Rumors and excitement about Sony’s compact, full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras were running hot and heavy prior to the announcement of the 24-megapixel a7 (Alpha 7) and 36-megapixel a7R (Alpha 7R). Shortly after the cameras were announced, Sony invited a group of journalists and photographers to Nashville, Tenn., for some hands-on time with both full-frame cameras, along with Sony’s new “bridge” camera, the DSC-RX10.


These were fairly early production models, and I spent less time with the cameras than I would for a full review, so these first impressions are just that—a quick first look. That said, I did have enough quality time with the cameras to get a feel for what it’s like to shoot with them.

The a7 and a7R are very similar in size, weight, and feature sets. They’re both well made and built around dust and moisture resistant magnesium alloy bodies. Given that they sport full-frame sensors, they are relatively compact, measuring around 5 x 3.75 x 2 inches. The a7 weighs 16.7 ounces, while the a7R is a hair lighter at 16.4 ounces, with battery and media (SD/SDHC/SDXC or Memory Stick) installed. Granted, the a7/a7R aren’t as small or light as Sony’s NEX-series cameras, nor many other mirrorless models on the market, but since they’re similar in design to the Cyber-shot RX1, there’s enough heft to them to feel solid in the hand and help balance longer lenses. A nice-sized handgrip also adds to the camera’s comfortable handhold.

Currently there are only three native full-frame (FE) lenses for the E-mount a7/a7R: the kit 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6, the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8, and Zeiss 35mm f/2.8. Sony’s FE roadmap promises a total of 15 lenses by 2015, with a 24-70mm f/4 lens due early next year. But Sony and third-party adapters, like Metabones, make it possible to attach a wide range of lenses. Of course, you can always attach an APS-C E-mount lens and either choose a crop mode or live with a vignette.

During the time in Nashville, I checked out the 28-70mm, 55mm, and 35mm lenses, along with a prototype of the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens. Of the three native lenses, the 35mm is my favorite. It’s small, lightweight, and delivers great detail and edge-to-edge sharpness. The 55mm is also an excellent lens, and I managed to pull some nice images from the 28-70mm kit lens as well. It goes without saying that the new Zeiss Otus lens is really, really sweet, but it’s large and overwhelms these compact cameras. Since it’s manual focus only, Sony’s focus peaking comes in handy, but I still had some issues with focusing in low light (which I attribute to mostly user error).


Sony Alpha 7, 35mm lens. Exposure: 1/500 second at f/5.6, ISO 12,800. ©Theano Nikitas

At 36 megapixels, the a7R is the higher-end (and more expensive) camera, and, given the trend in high-resolution digital cameras, it’s no surprise that the a7R lacks an optical low-pass filter (OLPF). In the brief time I shot with the a7R, I noticed very little moiré, but more extensive testing is needed to see how it performs.


Sony Alpha 7R, 35mm lens. Exposure: 1/30 second at f/20, ISO 160. ©Theano Nikitas

Using the cameras’ EVF was a pleasure, and the 3-inch, 921,600-dot tiltable LCD works well under almost all lighting conditions.

Overall, the cameras handle well and have an impressive number of external controls—many of which are customizable—and that’s one of the cameras’ main strengths. Multiple buttons and dials can be customized from a choice of 46 functions. Essentially, you’re given almost free range to create your own operational workflow. On the other hand, setting up the camera can take a while since you have so many choices. Initially, I found it difficult to remember what functions were assigned to the various dials and buttons, especially given that I set up both cameras differently, but it didn’t take long for everything to fall into place, allowing me to concentrate on shooting and not searching for a feature or function.

The cameras are feature rich (for more details about specific features, visit Alpha 7 or Alpha 7R), with more than enough control to please even fussy photographers. And, true to the latest trends, both models feature Wi-Fi, which is generally easy to set up and use, especially if you have an NFC-enabled smart device.

I’ve never been a fan of Sony’s NEX menu interface and, fortunately, the a7/a7R UI follows the logic and easy navigation of that used in the RX1 instead of the mysterious arrangement and placement of features within the often confusing NEX icons.

Neither camera is a real speed demon, but the a7 chugs along a little faster at up to 5 frames per second (fps) vs. the a7R’s maximum 4 fps. Not a huge difference as far as I’m concerned since neither is designed to shoot sports. On the other hand, both cameras are fast enough to capture action shots such as galloping horses. 

Autofocus worked fairly well, although the a7—which has a hybrid AF system—seemed to be a little faster than the a7R, but at this point that’s difficult to quantify. On the other hand, the a7R’s AF seemed to be more responsive in low light. Notably, the a7R’s shutter is a bit noisy, so if you’re a wedding photographer, hightail it to your local camera shop to take a listen before you buy.

I was a little disappointed in battery life, even when not using Wi-Fi, so extra batteries are a good bet for extended shooting sessions.

Among the journalists and photographers who attended the Nashville event, there was some discussion about the quality of the a7’s JPEGs. Some people were disappointed and said their images were a little soft straight out of the camera, particularly with the kit lens. I found that most of my test images with the 28-70mm lens were sharply focused and provided good detail. The 55mm lens was even better for sharpness and detail, but I think my favorites were the 35mm lens and the Otus 55mm. Not surprising, the a7R’s images were, in some ways, much better. Again, I’ll repeat the caveat that these are only my first impressions working with early production models, but I can say that the a7/a7R perform quite well in low light/high ISO situations.


Sony Alpha 7, 55mm lens. Exposure: 1/800 second at f/4, ISO 50. ©Theano Nikitas


Sony Alpha 7, 28-70mm lens. Exposure: 1/800 second at f/4.5, ISO 160. ©Theano Nikitas

Are these cameras perfect? No, but Sony has certainly raised the bar by introducing this new category of full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs), and we won’t be surprised to see a lot of pros and enthusiasts adding the Sony Alpha 7 or Alpha 7R to their kits.


Sony a7R: $2,300 (body only)
Sony a7: $1,700 (body only)
Sony a7: $2,000 (with 28-70mm kit lens)

Sonnar T FE 28-70mm F4: $1,200 (January)
Sonnar T FE 35mm F/2.8: $800

Sonnar T FE 55mm F1.8: $1,000 
Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4: $4,000

A-Mount fo E-Mount FF Lens Adapter (LA-EA4) with TMT: $350
A-Mount fo E-Mount FF Lens Adapter (LA-EA3): $200


About December 2013

This page contains all entries posted to Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives in December 2013. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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