Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR: The Cheap All-rounder

For curiosity's sake, I bought this lens last November 7 to try it out on my D300. As expected, I was not surprised at all at how superbly sharp and clear were the images taken by this cheap all-rounder. Comparing it with the previous kit lenses that I've tried, nothing seems to beat this latest kit lens offered by Nikon as packaged with the Nikon D90. For the record, I've had a chance to play with these kit lenses: 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G (D50), 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G (D70), 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G (D80) and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR (D60). These are all good plastic mount lenses but the 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G VR was so far the best of them all.

It has a VR (Vibration Reduction) feature making it useful in low light applications despite its slow aperture opening at f/3.5-5.6 at the wide to telephoto range. Though it doesn't have a VR II feature which is available in its 18-200mm VR, 70-300mm VR and 16-85mm VR predecessors but nonetheless, it gets the job done by reducing blur when taking photos at slower shutter speeds.

With its usable focal range at 18mm on the wide and 105mm on the far end, it is virtually a walk around lens like the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR DX where you can shoot landscapes, street scenes and portraiture. Its optical system features a single ED lens, hence, chromatic aberration is minimized. Though it has a SWM (Silent Wave Motor built-in), this lens is very slow in focusing especially in low light conditions. My Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF even beats this lens when it comes to ease of focusing.

What is desirable with this lens is the image quality of the photos taken by it. It is comparable to that of the 18-200mm VR at half the price if you're going to buy it separately as a lens. It is a plastic mount lens and it is very light which is a turn off for me considering that they are more prone to breakage if you hold your camera thru the lens and with the D300 attached to it, chances are it may not carry the weight of a bulkier and heavier D300 with vertical battery grip attached.

Having tested this on various shooting conditions, I am quite satisfied with the photographic output. In outdoors, it is a venerable lens but when shooting indoors, you must light your subject with external flashes to get good results. It is likewise slow when shooting inside a studio with dim light because it has a tendency to witch hunt for available light. With lights turned on, it is a breeze to focus accurately on your subjects.

In almost all my shooting experience with this lens on outdoors or even indoors, I have been shooting in CLS (Creative Lighting System) where I use external flash to help illuminate my subjects. I am more of a portraitist that's why i prefer lighting my subjects on the sides to get a more interesting portrait. Definitely, this is not a good lens using it in available light where the usual f/2.8 lenses might be the only choices.

If you're going to ask me if I like this lens? Well, I would tell you that I have already sold this lens because I'm not satisfied with it. But for its price, you don't have any reason to complain at all!! It's like looking at the two photos below - the moment I acquired it, I was smiling like I'm the happiest person with a new toy to explore and when I parted with it, I was kinda sad that I looked like the one in the bottom picture :)

Modelling credits from top to bottom : Nadine Dixon at Eco Park, Brandy at Linden Suites, Victoria Wise at Linden Suites, Zette at Eco Park, Acir at Heritage Park and Annie Lopez at DPI Ortigas Studio

Friday, October 31, 2008

under the shade

Perhaps the trickiest of the lighting condition when it comes to daylight shooting would be that of shooting under the shade. In daylight shooting, you may either shoot under a direct sunlight, under a cloudy sky or under a shade. When we speak of daylight, we mean the combination of sunlight and skylight. Both should combine to produce daylight. Shooting under a shade means you are either surrounded by trees and leaves with some or few streaks of sunlight creeping in in some instances. That's what makes it tricky and based on my experience, shooting without fill in flash won't give you any exciting results or output.

This is where the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) comes in handy again where the artificial light from the mini strobes would fill in light on the shadows on the head or facial portion of your subject. Without the fill in light, you will lose a lot of details on the eyes and other depressed contours of your subject making your portraits flat and lifeless. Of course, you can still remedy the situation but you have to be good in your photoshop skills and this would entail time in post processing. If you want to avoid any fancy retouching, you might as well use the extra light to lighten up your subject.

It is not necessary that you have to flood your subject with excessive light from numerous speedlights. Even a single mini strobe or speedlight can give you a desirable output if you know where to strategically place your light source. A good portrait doesn't require sufficient light to make it good. It only needs a quality light to make it interesting. I shun away from using reflectors because they create uneven skin tone. A diffused light looks more natural and taming the light from your speedlight may require you to either use a shoot through umbrella or a soft box and in the sample photos, I just used a Sto-fen diffuser.

Another camera setting to look out when shooting under a shade is choosing your White Balance and Picture Control. In the sample photos, I experimented using the Vivid Picture Control and the Daylight White Balance. It turned out that the colors are richer but I personally prefer the more natural look so I made some adjustments in Capture NX, the supplied photo-editing software of Nikon. If you are shooting in RAW, you can easily change your choice of settings but you won't learn to trust your instinct if you always rely on RAW adjustments every time you take pictures. It's better to train your eyes and judgmental call and let your mind decide on what settings you would fix on your camera. It is an accumulation of years of practice and experimenting before you can intuitively trust your judgment.

Photography is indeed a challenging travail but in order to get good pictures, you should know your camera by heart. And there's no better way to learn photography except to shoot regularly. And there's no better way to entice yourself to shoot periodically except picking what you like shooting the most. In my case, I get more inspiration when I do portraits of woman. And thanks to Sarah Josef for her patience and for being a good sport.

Make-up credit is given to King Pacifico. Without her, I wouldn't have the chance to shoot Sarah. All photos were taken by a Nikon D300 fitted with a Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF. Nikon SB-600 with Sto-fen attached was used as an artificial light source. Thanks to you, Vince, for lending me your speedlight.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


When I posted my multiplicity photos in flickr, I was asked by a few guys on how I did mine. Well, I always reveal my photoshop secrets when politely asked and whenever I have the time to make a tutorial. Multiplicity photos are simply made by cloning the same person on the same frame.

How do we do that? We start by getting a stable tripod where you can fix and attach your camera which will take multiple exposures of the same subject appearing on different location in the same background. For this, you should likewise choose a not so busy background or a quiet static place where there is no movement of anything on the background. Doing it on outdoors where there are passing vehicles or branches or leaves of trees swaying would not at all get the effect you needed. Remember that the camera must remain fixed and stationary during the entire photoshoot and you can avoid camera shake or movement by using a remote shutter release trigger or activating the timer switch of your camera.

Start taking pictures with your model moving to a different location each time. The more frames to combine, the harder it will be when you're cloning them in photoshop so in my example, I shot only two frames of the same subject on a different location in the background. Using a wide angle lens in these kind of shots would be most helpful so that you can cover more space in your frame. Also bear in mind that the subject should not occupy the same space occupied in the previous frames, otherwise, an overlapping subject would be difficult to deal with in photoshop. That's about it for the photography part and the next step would be the post editing work.

In photoshop, open the two frames or so much frames that you have taken with the same background. In my example of two frame shoot, you're going to select the second frame using the rectangular marquee tool then move that selection on the first frame using the move tool. While working on the second frame which is the top layer, create or add a white layer mask. Set black as the foreground color and white as the background color. Using the brush tool, slowly paint over the portion where the subject on the background layer (first frame) is located. Voila!! that's about it. You now have a multiplicity photo. Flatten the image and save it!

Another alternative would be using the eraser tool instead of the layer mask technique. I personally prefer the layer mask technique more to my liking but in photoshop, you can always get what you want in so many ways or means possible.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

environmental glamour portraiture

Shooting glamour portraits with environmental element is what fascinates me these days, being my latest photographic interest. Often, we see glamour portraits of pretty models shot in an out of focus backgrounds intended primarily to isolate the subject and to put emphasis on the model or the item she’s wearing or selling. This is the typical glamour portraiture we knew as differentiated from an environmental portraiture where the background plays an important element.

As more popularly defined, an environmental portrait is an image of a person in a place – they are portraits of people in their workplace, home or places of leisure which says something about themselves as a person. It is a portrait taken in an environment or in a location. Shooting portraits in an environment is therefore called environmental portraiture and shooting pretty girls in a location might be rightly called environmental glamour portraiture if the surroundings or the background where the subject stands plays a key element in the photo.

In this style of portraiture, the background should be integrated with the subject and not taken as out of focus element. Mixing glamour with environmental elements therefore necessitates the use of wide angle lenses shooting at smaller apertures to capture the background in a wider depth of field. In the sample photos, I used a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AF-D, for the first five photos and a Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF, for the last photo, and if given a choice of what lens to use, I would take a medium range zoom like the Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G AF-S or the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G AF-S DX. The Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF was recently borrowed from a friend and this is the culprit why I am now putting my sights on this style of portraiture – environmental portraiture, that is.

By the way, I recently sold my favorite and most abused lens, the Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S in the hope that I could buy a better replacement but up to now, I haven't had a chance to get one due to financial constraints so I settled on a fixed focal length lens, the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF, to fill in the void on my wide angle shots. I had previously used the same lens on a Nikon D200 and was not impressed with the results but fitting it this time to a D300 gave me a more amazing output.

One important tip on shooting environmental portraits is to shoot your subject in an environment where the surroundings will not dominate your shot, or aptly put, the background should not be distractive or cluttered to detract the attention of your viewers away from the subject. The background or the surroundings by itself should give a hint on where your subject is. Looking at the photo of Hanna above, one may deduce that the subject was on top of a building with a nearby construction of another building seen on the background. The photo below would also give you an idea of Hanna on a high altitude location inasmuch as you can see the surrounding cityscape on the background. The first four photos of Angelyn were shot on the same location at the roof deck of City Land Tower located at Pasong Tamo in Makati City.

For modelling credits, special thanks to Jim Go Yarisantos for letting me shoot these two young girls, namely, Angelyn Tensuan and Hanna Mae Padilla. Make up services was volunteered by Wren Yuson.

Friday, July 25, 2008

balancing flash and natural light

It's my nth trip to Eco Park and had done a lot of photoshoots there but this time I tried to perfect a lighting technique - and that is how to balance the flash with the natural light. Specifically for this shoot, my objective is to seamlessly blend the flash with the existing ambient lighting of a particular scene. Using Nikon's Creative Lighting System, such task can be made easier but still you have to do a lot of trial and error until such time you get what is pleasing to your eyes.

It was a rainy day at the park but I still proceeded with the shoot knowing fully well that there will only be a few promenaders at the park which is very desirable when shooting your models who will not become conscious by the presence of people watching them or stopping by to peek a look at what they're doing. The sun was hiding behind the nimbus clouds, hence, it was an overcast day and an appropriate time to bring out the flash to contribute some artificial light to your images.

Blending the flash seamlessly with the ambient light is easier said than done. Some do it to sharpen the image or bring out details on the subject while others do it to create a more dramatic lighting or to put some edge definition on the subject. I tried doing all these but my results leave so much to be desired. Having had plenty of experience shooting in available light, I find it more appealing nowadays to combine both light sources into my portraiture.

To achieve this lighting technique, you can always think of it this way - and you have to choose whether you're going to make the sun or the natural light as your main light and your artificial light from your flash as your fill light and vice versa. If you'll treat your flash as your main light and the natural light as your fill light, you have to overpower the natural light by fixing your flash to a setting with a much higher light intensity. This will create or give you with a more dramatic image with edge definition on your subject.

The second and the fifth photos from the top are good examples of this where the flash overpowers the natural light. With the rest of the photos, I think I was able to get a balanced lighting from my artificial light source and from the natural light then obtaining.

When positioning the flash, moreover than not, I always place it 90 degrees or 45 degrees from where my subject is standing and this is how is light my people subject whenever I combine both flash and natural light. This set-up would give you a more dramatic facial contours inasmuch as the light falling or spreading down on the face are uneven which is your objective in the first place to avoid getting flat portraits or those where both sides of the face are similarly illuminated. A little darker on one side is, for me, a more pleasing image than one where both sides of the face are lighted with the same intensity.

For modelling credits, I'd like to thank Issa Ortiz-Luis and Nadine Dixon for being my models on this edition of my Eco Park series.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

bluer than blue

I had a chance to shoot outdoors last June 19-20 and this opportunity lent me a time to experiment on my landscape camera settings. The landscapes of the Ilocos Region presented me with some fascinating places where i could try such settings that i have in mind like the Bangui Windmills and the nearby Cape Bojeador Lighthouse.

Familiarizing with your camera's controls and settings should be your first priority if you want to improve on your photography. So, i ventured into an experiment where i tried using the D300's Active D-Lighting feature to the hilt in most of my settings. Common sense further dictates that i should try tinkering with the Vivid settings of the Picture Control to get rich and vibrant colors.

Based on what we have read on the manuals, "Active D-Lighting preserves details in highlights and shadows, creating photos with natural contrast. Use for high contrast scenes, for example when photographing brightly lit outdoor scenery through a door or window or taking pictures of shaded subjects on a sunny day." It is an in-camera extension of dynamic range and as distinguished from the previous D-Lighting feature of some models of Nikon DSLRs, Active D-Lighting is activated before taking the photo and not the usual post editing correction tool where you can tweak the highlights and the shadows after the image had already been captured and stored on the memory card.

Since the feature was meant to increase and record a wider range of lights and shadows, it will take the camera a longer time to process and record more information about the image before saving it on the memory card and this is where the faster CF cards should reign supreme over the cheaper brands. I'm only using Ridata and PQI or what you call the lesser brands but i don't find any significant drawback on their writing speeds.

With the Active D-Lighting turned ON, one is supposed to expect a reduction of the blown highlights and a preservation of details on the dark areas. I experimented with the various options available on the Active D-Lighting feature and i found out that on landscapes with extreme contrast on a sunny day, the High setting is the most desirable for my needs. Why? because it makes the blue skies bluer and that was my objective in mind when i ventured into this shoot. Of course, the Vivid setting on the Picture Controls played an important role too in darkening the blue skies but this setting should be tamed a bit if you're taking environmental portraits where you have people on the foreground. A Vivid setting will likely give you a reddish to orange brown skin tone and this is not natural.

With the right camera settings, one can do away on the use of polarizing filters which are meant or designed to make the skies a little bluer than what the eyes can see. I shun away from using filters primarily because it gives the photographer an easier task and the results are somewhat predictable to the trained and experienced eyes thus making you look more like a cheater than a creative photographer. This is aside from the fact that filters are an extra cost and additional bulk to what you might be bringing on your photoshoot trips.

On hindsight, i was also thinking that my Sunny white balance setting contributed a significant role on the overall results that i got from this shoot. The contrast is very much desirable and was further enhanced by the Active D-Lighting on the D300 which i find effective especially when shooting on harsh lighting conditions. If properly used, the Active D-Lighting feature would give you an HDR look image without the vulgar and extremely artificial effect of an overdone HDR. It pays a lot to tinker and play with your camera's controls and settings and if i were you, i would start shooting more than buying or accumulating gears which you don't know how or when to use when the need arises.

The first two photos above were taken at the beaches of Bangui Bay where the fifteen windmills generating the power requirements of the province of Ilocos Norte were presently installed. The rest of the photos were that of Cape Bojeador Lighthouse which is situated atop of a hill in Burgos, Ilocos Norte.

I am very much grateful to Vince Gaspar for tagging me along while he's on a business trip on the northern part of the Philippines.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My D300 Experience

I got my Nikon D300 last week of April and it's barely a week in my custody when I was presented with an opportunity to test its mettle on an outdoor and studio shoots using two of my least favorite lenses, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D AF and the Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED-IF AF-S. Don't get me wrong when I said 'least favorites'. They are the cheapest lenses in my dry box but nonetheless, the most abused and ironically, you might call it my 'most favorite' lenses indeed. If you're going to ask me, what lens is dearest to my heart right now and without blink of an eye, i would say the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF, since i shoot mostly portraits.

Without much variance in ergonomics and control panel placements, the D300 is very much similar to my previous D200 except that I now enjoy the Expeed image processing capabilities, high ISO shooting and longer battery life of the D300. I'm not a sports shooter so I still have to appreciate its faster FPS and its vaunted 51 focus points in 3D. But initially, after pressing the shutter release button when I first got a hand on it, I find the D300 a more snappy camera compared to the D200. I'm not a landscapist either so I haven't discovered the benefits of it's Active D-Lighting feature yet which according to papers, can greatly enhance dynamic ranges of the shadows and the highlights for a more vivid and detailed image capture.

Last May 2, I had a chance to shoot Roxanne, a local celebrity here and the results I got were very much pleasing. In this outdoor shoot, I fitted my old reliable 50mm f/1.4D to the D300 to find out if it can exceed what the D200 had achieved in the past. Though I had better results in using that lens before with the D200 but those photos were taken when the lighting was extremely helpful for an outdoor portrait session. With harsh lights producing unwanted highlights, the first two photos of Roxanne were an instant success having been taken without any aid from my speedlight which I usually bring out from my bag when giving an extra hairlight would make the image more pleasant.

After a brief outdoor experience, we decided to shoot indoors on a studio set-up using regular strobes. For more flexibility, I have to change lens and this time I fitted my slow but reliable Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED-IF AF-S to the D300. Being a consumer grade lens, it is obviously inferior to what my 85mm f/1.4D can produce under the same shooting conditions but nevertheless, it can respectably provide good results too.

Using a softbox and a brolly and later on a third light placed at the back of the model, we were able to get results like the last four photos in the samples. While tinkering with my settings, I am quite a bit surprised when I was able to fire the strobes at above 1/320 flash synch which is the rated max speed for the D300. I reviewed my flash settings and these were what I got: the D300 was set to flash in TTL Mode, the SB800 was set to manual @ 1/128 flash intensity or just enough to trigger the sensors of the strobes. I shoot in Manual Mode as always and whenever I exceed the shutter speed to more than 1/250 sec., I get a black or blank image.

With the D300, the flash synch speed can go as high as 1/320 as long as you choose the Focal Plane option in the menu. But with my experience, I was able to fire the strobes and get an image even above 1/320 shutter speed. I experimented with different speeds and discovered that I can get away with it only up to 1/500 sec. shutter speed. Beyond that, the usual black screen or blank images will now appear on your LCD screen.

The journey and experimentation will continue and photography is such a never ending conquest of technology and capture of beauty. Years or months from now, the D300 may have another iteration but my resolve to grow old with this hobby will not preclude me from trying out new gears as they come in the future. As they say, enjoy it while it lasts and for now, I'm looking forward to an FX format in a D300 body.

For modelling credits, much pleasure to thank Ms. Roxanne Barcelo for the shoot. Make-up by Pam Dionisio while the venue for the studio shoot was offered by Jobbit Mata.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

dramatic lighting set-ups

The basic purpose of lighting is to bring out the subject to make it visible in a photograph. But for the advanced photographers who are simply tired of flatly lighted portraits, lighting is a process of setting up the lights to impart personality and character to a portrait and fill it with emotion. Unknown to many, dramatic lighting can be achieved with just a single light source strategically placed to a location where it can create high contrast shadows on the face of a subject. Before we venture into this discussion, we should first familiarize ourselves with the basic lighting set-up composed of three lights: the key or main light, the fill light and the back light. Since I am using Nikon speedlights, SB800 and SB600, in my sample photos, I will limit my discussion on lighting techniques with these speedlights as my light sources.

The key light is the strongest light usually placed on a high angle and on the side of the subject. It is mostly mounted on a reflective umbrella directed towards the face of the subject. The fill light or the weaker light can be provided by a light source mounted on a shoot through umbrella or if dispensed with, can be sourced from a reflector or from an existing natural light. The back light separates your subject from the background to create an edge light on your subject.

Going back to our topic on dramatic light set-ups, a single light source may just be enough to light your subject if you know how to set it up in such a way that your light direction will properly hit your subject's facial contours to give it an outline of shadows and highlights. In my first sample portrait above, the light source was placed on the left side at angle in front of the subject to create shadows on the right side of the model's face.

The second photo from above was lighted by a key light placed on the right side slightly at the back of the model while the third photo was lighted by exactly the same set up but this time the model was instructed to move a little bit backwards. The light provided by the key light perfectly illuminated the facial countours and since it was placed at the back of the model, it serves as a backlight too and created some edge light on the head and shoulder of the model.

The fourth sample photo was lighted by two light sources and they were set-up to achieve a Rembrandt effect. The Rembrandt effect is a high contrast lighting scheme and is achieved by placing the key light at a high angle to your subject's face. The Rembrandt effect is characterized by a triangular light underneath the subject's eye. It also allows the nose shadow to blend in with the shadow on the dark side of the face.

The last two photos were shot on an indoor location and ligthing the subject with a light source mounted on board a camera would not achieve the same effect so using two light sources placed away from the camera will do the job. On the fifth sample photo from above, the model was asked to posed on a hallway corridor. The key light was placed on the right side and in front of the model while the fill light/backlight was placed on the right side at the back of the model. On the last photo on the stairway, the key light was placed at a high angle on the left side of the model while the fill light was pointing directly towards the face and was placed on the ground.

For modelling credits, I would like to thank Klaudia Batzler, a Filipina-German who gamely followed my instructions. Make-up services was provided by Pam Dionisio.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

high dynamic range images

High Dynamic Range imaging (HDRi) is often called the process of combining bracketed images with different exposures and subsequently tone-mapping the resulting image to give a high and exaggerated dynamic range with more details on the highlights, shadows and midtones.

When doing HDRi, I use the trial version of Dynamic Photo HDR from Media Chance and it is a better software, for my requirements, than what the Adobe CS3 can offer.

Your very first concern when processing images in HDR is to get at least three (3) images with different exposures. The more images of the same scene is of course better so that you can set the EV value increment to a narrower figure. Getting a series of the same scene would require you to set up a stable and sturdy tripod where you will mount your camera. Fortunately for me, I am using a Nikon D200 where it can take a series of shots up to nine (9) frames. Other Nikon DSLR models like the D80 and lower models can only take three (3) frames. Doing this would again necessitate to set the camera to a Continuous Shooting Mode and triggering the shutter release button thru the built-in timer function or with a cable release gadget you attach to the camera to prevent any camera shake from affecting the frames of images you will need to combine when doing HDRi.

Now, assuming you already have at least three (3) images to process with, load this image using Dynamic Photo HDR. For a quality compromise, it's better to have at least five (5) images of the same scene to work with.When these images with bracketed exposures were already loaded, the next thing to do is to check whether these images are properly aligned. You can align them automatically or manually but I'd rather do manual alignment and rely on my sense of sight's judgment. You can tweak the merged images with advanced options like pin warping and anti-ghosting options but that is for the advanced users.

After you've finished the alignment process, you're now ready to tone map the exported HDR image. With Dynamic Photo HDR software, you have six (6) tone mapping options: Eye-Catching, Ultra Contrast, Smooth Compressor, Auto-Adaptive, Photographic and Human Eye. Ocassionally, I always get better images for my taste whenever I process the HDRi on the Eye-Catching mode but I also have great results using the Ultra Contrast mode. When you want subtle results or less-than the hyper realistic HDR effect, you can either process your HDRi using the other options mentioned above.

In the examples given, the 3rd and 4th photos from top were both processed in Ultra Contrast mode while the rest of the images were all process in Eye Catching mode.