Monday, November 2, 2009

Taking Halloween Pictures - Part 2

Part 1 here.

For Halloween, we took our toddler to California Adventure.  We had a great time.  We plan to go back next year.
The pictures weren't perfect but I was satisfied with some of the portrait shots, and overall, the pictures were noticeably better than those from last year's Halloween, thanks largely to better understanding of TTL flash.

What went right / suggestions for nighttime shots:

1. Handheld umbrella.
I used a handheld umbrella to take some posed shots. I used the umbrella as key and I got the light I wanted for the subject.
For this shot, I took the exposure in manual mode.  I set aperture at its widest at 2.8 because I wanted a shallow depth of field.  I started out with max sync speed to minimize the ambient on the subject, so the subject was lit only by the soft directional light from the umbrella, then would increase ambient from there as necessary (by using a higher ISO or slower shutter) but I liked how the shot looked so I left it there.

2. Using ambient backlight.
There were spotlights throughout the park.  I took advantage of these spotlights to use them as rim lights for drama (to the extent the subjects cooperated).  To do so, I just positioned the subjects where the spotlights were behind and above them.
In one area, there was a cool-looking spotlight shining through a "fog."  I positioned my wife to block the spotlight itself, allowing just the corona of light to shine around my wife and our toddler.

3. Off-camera flash.
Inside the park, Disneyland's security objected to my use of the handheld umbrella, at first claiming that it was professional equipment, then next arguing that it was a sharp object.  Not wanting to ruin the fun of the evening, I decided to put the handheld umbrella away and just used the bare SB-800 handheld, in wireless mode.  Using the flash off-camera helped avoid the flat lighting from using an on-axis flash as key light.

There were also some shots where I lucked out on chimping the exposure and got a soft-looking light, I believe because ambient was just at the right level (probably 1 or 2 stops underexposed) to act as an extension of the key light. I plan to investigate this further to do it more consistently.

4. CTO gel.
Especially when there is mostly yellowish ambient light, the bluish light from the flash is a dead giveaway that artificial light was used.  The 1/4 CTO gel that I taped to my flash helped the flash look much more natural.

5. Manual mode.
I've been using program, aperture priority and shutter priority but I tried out manual exposure based on Neil van Niekerk's suggestions. It wasn't as difficult as I expected, even with often-changing light conditions. I didn't do it the right way though. I chose exposure settings purely by guesstimating, looking at the picture taken, and adjusting accordingly.  For such an unscientific way of taking manual exposure shots, the shots weren't as far off as one might expect.  The benefit of using manual exposure was more consistent exposures.  I plan to practice using manual mode in the hope of being more aware of (and in control of) my exposure.

What could be better:

1. Chimping.
As discussed above, I chimped the exposure just using the LCD screen.  I was aware that there were better ways of setting exposure, such as spot metering the white portion of our kid's costume and setting that to +1 or +2 exposure comp, or using the blinking highlights screen, or using the histogram.  But I caved under time pressure and just adjusted exposure based on instinct and a quick review of the shots.  Next time, I have to discipline myself to use one of the more reliable methods (probably the histogram method).

2. Flash blur from excess ambient light:
I set the exposure for ambient light at levels that I guessed were appropriate.  What I neglected to take into account sufficiently was to underexpose the background.  I was too concerned with having the background lights show up to avoid the black hole look.  The truth is, with digital SLRs, I find it far easier to use postprocessing to correct background underexposure than overexposure. Next time, I will err on the side of underexposing the background instead of risking overexposure.

3. Flash exposure.
The TTL-based flash exposure wasn't as smart as I thought. It tended to underexpose white areas.  This wasn't very obvious just reviewing the shot on the LCD screen but could have been easily observed from reviewing the histogram.  Something to force myself to do next time.

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