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.

April 23, 2015

Color Grading Basics for DSLR Filmmaking

By Ron Dawson

Every Hollywood movie, every TV commercial, and every original series you binge-watch on Netflix is professionally color graded. Doesn’t matter how simple or “normal” a scene may look, before it hits the airwaves or the silver screen, a colorist sat in a dark room, turning knobs or tweaking software parameters to make the scene look and feel the way the director wanted.

Fortunately, many photographers are better prepared to enter the world of color grading than videographers were during the rise of DSLR filmmaking. Most of you are already familiar with levels and curves in Lightroom or Photoshop. You can take those same skill sets and apply them to filmmaking.

Shooting Flat

As is usually the case when it comes to filmmaking, the work you do in post-production starts long before you enter the editing room. When it comes to color grading, it starts with how you capture your image. There are a number of considerations to be best prepared to color grade.

Saturation, sharpness, and contrast all play a significant role in the color grading process. In order to have the most flexibility, experienced filmmakers shoot their footage “flat,” meaning saturation, sharpness, and contrast are slightly to significantly reduced in-camera.

With DSLRs I use a custom setting with sharpness and contrast set as low as possible and two notches down on saturation, a setting made famous by filmmaker and colorist Stu Maschwitz in his blog post prolost.com/flat.

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© Stu Maschwitz.

The image you capture will essentially look lifeless, but you will have the most latitude for making color enhancements in post.

Levels and Curves

One of the first places to start in color grading is levels and curves adjustments. I typically use Nattress Levels and Curves plug-in for Final Cut Pro X (FCPX), but what I’ll explain is applicable to any non-linear editor (NLE).

There are four plug-ins that come with Levels and Curves: Curves, Curves Luma, Curves RGB, and Levels. I’ll show you each using a clip from the raw footage of my short film “S3P4.” Here’s the untreated footage shot with a flat profile on a Canon EOS 7D:

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Curves tweaks the blacks, midrange, and whites along the whole color space. When you first apply the plug-in, a diagonal line appears on the clip. From here you can adjust the whites, mids, and blacks (as well as the “toe” and “knee” values).

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Curves Luma just affects the luma values, not the color. You might use the plug-in if you’re concerned with exposure levels only and don’t want to change saturation or the color temperature. You’ll notice that the color temperature of this is closer to that of the original raw footage. The key difference is the contrast.

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A straight-forward S-curve, commonly used for a cinematic look

Curves RGB allows you to tweak the levels in each of the primary colors: red, green, or blue. In this particular instance, I selected the preset “Cool Highlights, Warm Shadows.”

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Finally, we have the Levels plug-in, used to manipulate black, gamma and white levels in your image. At its basic, gamma is the setting of the greys in your image. Differences in gamma setting is why one image or video may look one way on a Mac and darker on Windows. Often you can “lighten” an image by changing the gamma. This will tend to preserve more of the details than just boosting the highlights.

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Tools of the Trade

There are a wide variety of tools on the market for color grading. All of the major NLEs like Adobe’s Premiere Pro and After Effects, or Apple’s FCPX have built-in color tools for doing basic grading. Typically you’ll use color wheels, HSL sliders, contrast adjustments, etc. One benefit of using these tools is that they usually require less render time than plug-ins and filters.

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FCPX’s “Color Board” is Apple’s replacement of the traditional color wheel.

If you want to beef up your color-grading arsenal, the next step is plug-ins. Some enhance your ability to manipulate levels and curves. Some give you extreme looks that allow you to make significant changes across the board to color, contrast, saturation, etc.

On the Mac, I highly recommend FxFactory by Noise Industries (fxfactory.com). Think of it an App Store for your NLE. Once you purchase a plug-in via the free FxFactory software, wherever you log on to a computer, you’ll have access to those plug-ins. They have plug-ins for FCPX, After Effects, Apple Motion, and Adobe Premiere. Other popular FCPX plug-in providers include CrumplePop.com and RippleTraining.com.

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One of the most respected plug-in developers for both Mac and Windows NLEs is Red Giant Software (www.redgiant.com). Their Magic Bullet Looks plug-in has nearly 200 presets that replicate popular movie and television show looks. Each preset is then customizable, or you can create one from scratch.

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Plug-ins range from as low as $30 to $399 for Magic Bullet Looks ($799 if you opt for Red Giant’s full suite of Magic Bullet products).

If you want to play with the pros and have the most power at your fingertips, then you’ll want to learn one of the stand-alone color grading tools like Black Magic Design’s DaVinci Resolve (https://www.blackmagicdesign.com/products/davinciresolve) or Adobe’s Speedgrade https://creative.adobe.com/products/speedgrade . The learning curve on these programs is more steep, but if you master them the sky’s the limit with where you can take the look of your films.

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DaVinci Resolve is perhaps the leading stand-alone color grading program.

DaVinci Resolve Lite is free, but the full program is just shy of $1,000. I would guess, though, that the Lite version has more features than most of you will ever need.

Scopes are Your Friend

To effectively and precisely color grade footage, it’s important to use your NLE’s built-in scopes, which are virtual monitors used to analyze color and luma levels in your video. My go-to scope is the RGB parade waveform monitor, which will show you the waveform pattern for the three primary colors.

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RGB Parade waveform monitor. 

Another popular one is the vectorscope, often used to gauge the distribution of color in a shot.

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Matching Your Video to a Photo or Another Film

If you see a video whose look you really like, take a screenshot of the scenes you like, import them into your NLE, open your scopes, then tweak your video’s RGB curve settings to match those of the imported scene. I did something similar with a photo to make a “beauty” film I shot as a gift for my wife. 

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The photo I used as the basis for my color grade with the RGB parade waveform of the photo in FCPX (photo ©Atil Inc)

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The RGB parade of the raw footage 

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This is the look of the film after making RGB curve adjustments to match those of the photo. The pattern and values are much closer to the original photo now.

Color Grading Resources

There is so much more to cover, such as LUTs, color space, and bit depth, but these basics should be enough to take your color-graded videos to the next level. Here are some additional resources if you would like to delve deeper into the colorful world of color grading.

Color Grading Central by Denver Riddle

Ripple Training’s Color Grading Tutorial for Final Cut Pro and DaVinci Resolve 

Anything by respected instructor and colorist Alexis Van Hurkman 

Stu Maschwitz’s blog, prolost.com

SnakeClamp: Third Hand Hero

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

Whether you’re working in the studio or on location, chances are you’ve found yourself in a situation where you could use an extra set of hands. Maybe you needed a light or gobo to be held in just the right position, or perhaps your tripod just wasn’t flexible enough to get the angle you wanted. And that’s where SnakeClamp comes in. Their tagline is “hold what you need, where you need it.” And based on my experience with their system, SnakeClamp delivers. 

SnakeClamp is an innovative system that combines a flexible arm with interchangeable mounting bases and attachments. It can be used to hold anything—iPad, smartphone, camera, speedlight. They can even provide custom mounting systems if you need something specialized.

When ordering your SnakeClamp, you get to decide which components you want. When in use, you will only be using three components at one time, but it is possible to swap out parts if desired.

First, you’ll probably want to decide what sort of device you need held. SnakeClamp has the following attachment categories: camera, tablet, e-reader, smartphone, machine guard, workholding, microphone, and reflector lamp. You could also supply your own if it has a compatible 3/8-inch male screw threads.

Next, select the arm. SnakeClamp offers a variety of flexible gooseneck arms (9-,18- and 24-inch lengths), as well as a 12-inch rigid arm (load capacity of 5 pounds). The flexible arms have a load capacity of 2 pounds, with the exception of the normal 18-inch gooseneck, which has a .5-pound load capacity. If you want the 18-inch length with 2-pound load capacity, go with the heavy-duty version.

Finally, you’ll need to consider your mounting base options: table clamp, round base, magnet base, plate mount, rail clamp, and multiclamp. If you're going to use the round base, you may want to get the one with a 1.8-pound magnet for added stability.

For this review, I got to test out the camera mount adapter, the camera ball head, the flexible gooseneck arm, the round base (with optional magnet weight), and the multiclamp. The parts ship unassembled; a hex key was included, but I did need to supply my own flathead screwdriver.

The arm accepts two 3/8-inch screws and has a 4mm set screw on each end, too. The set screw ensures that the 3/8-inch screw threads won’t loosen unintentionally. To assemble, you simply add the attachment and base options to each end of the arm (you could supply your own attachments so long as they have 3/8-inch male screw threads).

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A top-down view of the round base with
the camera ball head attachment

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An underside view of the round base,
with the magnet weight removed

Both camera mounts will work with standard tripod threads. The ball head can support up to 6.6 pounds, so using a DSLR is possible, depending on the body and lens combination you use, but this isn't the best solution for that. For the sake of this review, I tried it anyway. Did it hold? Yes. I’d relegate this sort of use to in-studio, where conditions are controlled. With a lighter camera, I’d have no qualms whatsoever. My main concern was whether the light stand would tip rather than if the SnakeClamp could hold.

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After testing out the round base, I swapped in the multiclamp attachment and decided this was the perfect combination for me.

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The real benefit of this setup? Being able to use the SnakeClamp for off-camera lights. I really enjoyed using the multiclamp base with my speedlights. This would be great for on location, if you didn’t want to carry a light stand with you. There’s almost always somewhere to attach a clamp, so the SnakeClamp expands your lighting placement options.

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My take away? While the SnakeClamp wasn’t designed specifically for photographers, it is definitely an innovative tool that you should consider adding to your arsenal. The SnakeClamp is a great product. I’m not sure I’d use it for my DSLR so much as for other things. When you combine a pro DSLR body with a heavy lens, the weight is going to exceed the load capacity for the flexible gooseneck arm. The SnakeClamp really opened up possibilities so far as where I could place my lights for effective on location lighting. The round base with table attachment might be nice for studio consultations, bridal shows, or other times when you want to have a tablet handy.

Since the SnakeClamp is a build-your-own product, prices will vary, but this investment won’t break the bank. Camera attachments are under $15, gooseneck arms range from $10 to $30, and bases range from $14 to $38. So, depending on the attachments you want, you could have your own customized SnakeClamp for less than $50. To learn more about the different attachment options, or to order, visit snakeclamp.com.

Betsy Finn, M.Photog.Cr.,CPP lives in Michigan. Her studio, Betsy’s Photography, can be found on the web at bphotoart.com.

 

March 25, 2015

In Memorium: Paul C. Buff, 1936-2015

Paul Conrad Buff, founder of Paul C. Buff, Inc., longtime Professional Photographers of America member, and inventor of lighting tools that include White Lightning, Zap, AlienBees, and Einstein monolights, died March 14, 2015, at his farm near Theodore, Alabama. 

A native of Glendora, California, Buff was born April 24, 1936. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served 1954 to 1957. He began his career in the music industry by building Pal Recording Studio in 1957 in Cucamonga, California. Buff was an early innovator in multi-track recording by building his own console to record five tracks on half-inch wide tape. As studio owner and recording engineer, he helped create the sound of surf music with the hit records “Wipe Out” and “Pipeline.” One of Buff’s early employees at Pal was budding musician Frank Zappa, whom he mentored and later sold the studio to. 

After selling Pal Recording Studios, Buff founded Allison Design where he continued his career as inventor and innovator in the field. In the mid-’60s he moved to Nashville where he became involved withthe company Valley Audio. Allison and Valley morphed into Valley People, where Buff remained president until 1984. A pioneer in computerized control of the sound recording process Buff invented various audio tools including the Kepex (Keyable Program Expander), the Trans-amp, the Electronic Gain Control Device, and the Valley People Dyna-mite. These recording tools were used by many artists, including the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Carole King, and Barry White. Many of the designs are still in use today.

After becoming interested in photography in 1980, Buff looked at the available electronic flash lighting equipment and decided he could use more modern electronic engineering to make it more efficient and affordable. As a business strategy, he elected to keep prices down and shorten the lines of communication between customer and manufacturer by selling directly to photographers. The first product, the White Lightning 130, was introduced in 1981. A yoke-mounted monolight that resembled a fat white coffee can, the WL130 sold for an unprecedented $139.95. It was later replaced by the Ultra, Zap, and the current X-series. White Lightning Ultras gained a reputation among photojournalists and other working and amateur photographers for being rugged and reliable as well as precise and affordable. Features included the Balcar light modifier attachment system, wireless remote control options, wide output range, and a powerful modeling light.

As an adjunct to the more expensive White Lightning series, in September 2001 the company introduced a second and more affordable product line, the AlienBees. More recently a third line, the Einstein E640 was introduced and remains the state of the art in manual monolight design. Other products include the Vagabond series of high-capacity rechargeable lithium batteries and a wide range of light modifiers. According to company’s website, since the introduction of the AlienBees series, Paul C. Buff Inc. attained and maintains an approximate 60 percent annual sales share of electronic flash sales in the United States.

Buff is survived by his wife of 16 years, Debbie, stepdaughter Kimberlee Jones, stepson Julian Smith, and grandchildren. The company will continue. 

On its website, the Paul C. Buff corporation has invited people who wish to offer condolences to send them to CelebratingPaul@paulcbuff.com.

March 24, 2015

Get a Slow-mo 360-degree Video Sweep with OrcaVue

By Joan Sherwood, Senior Editor

When you mention a 360-degree shot, most people will think of a panoramic sweep of the surrounding view from the photographer’s point of view. But imagine you had a film crew and could do one of those iconic cinema takes in which the camera sweeps around the subject in the center, like a couple embracing, or Keanu Reeves in full-airborne fight mode. That’s the sort of three-sixty that OrcaVue can get you, except you won’t need a whole film crew or a crane.

 

At the center of OrcaVue is a stationary platform with current models capable of holding 250 to 300 pounds (the OrcaVue XL is in development and will hold 400 pounds). Your human (or other) subject(s) stands or moves on the center platform as the OrcaVue sweeps its camera-mount arm in full 360-degree circles. The speed of the sweep is designed for 1 to 2 revolutions per second for cameras like the GoPro set to record in a high frame rate, such as 120 or 240 frames per second (fps) or other cameras that can reach 3,200 fps. The result creates a smooth, stunning, slow-motion shot moving around the subject in action.

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©OrcaVue

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The OrcaVue can support small devices like the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus as well as larger recommended camera models up to 7 pounds. Recommended cameras include the Panasonic GH4, Sony Alpha A7s, Canon EOS 70D, 6D, or 5D Mark III, and the Nikon D800. Larger cameras at higer RPMs will be compatible with the OrcaVue XL.

For a full-body shot using a full-frame DSLR, the team recommends using a 14mm lens with the camera arm 42 inches away. It all depends on what shot you want to get.

OrcaVue has two counterweight systems that are used for different situations. The first is the very simple static balance method for low revolutions per minute (RPMs). This is as easy as adding larger counterweights, or sliding the counterweight further from the central axis. The second is a more complex method of balancing dynamic equations, used at much higher RMPs (typically used on cameras with frame rates well above 240 FPS). It may sound complicated, but the OrcaVue app (coming soon) will save you from having to do any math. Simply input your givens (camera weight, distance from subject, desired RPM), and the app will read back the values for the counterweights needed.

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©OrcaVue 

The current asking price for the OrcaVue Life model is $2,499 ($500 off), which will be available for shipment in April. There is also an optional custom-fitted Pelican Case for $300.

There are also rental options available for Video Production Service (VPS) and Crowd Event Service (CES). The services include one-on-one assistance from OrcaVue staff so that you will be able to use the rig to its fullest potential. For VPS, you can rent for 2, 4, or 8 hours and the rental fee, which ranges from $599 to $999, includes an OrcaVue operator; travel and lodging expenses for the operator are tallied separately and billed at cost. Crowd Event Service includes an operator and an event manager’s services and is priced from $749 to $1,349.

The production and design team behind OrcaVue is business developer and engineer Adam Boussouf, head engineer Daniel Rosenberry, chief cinematographer Jonathan Rosenberry, and master builder Robert Rosenberry. Together they have already met with enthusiastic response for the product. Check out sample videos on Instagram at https://instagram.com/orcavue/ .


 

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