Archive | Lighting RSS for this section

New Lighting Equipment

Lighting equipment is expensive and so I spend a reasonable amount of time searching out used equipment on Ebay.  Craigslist tends to be too small of a market even in the SF Bay Area to get a good selection of equipment on a regular basis.   I got my favorite lens, the Sony 135mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss, on Ebay for 1/3rd off the nominal price.

About the same time I got the lens, I found a Dyna-Lite set that picked up for $217.  New Dyna-Lite kits are about $2k, but lighting equipment hasn’t dramatically advanced in a long time, so used sets have great potential.  I wasn’t a complete expert on the different makes and models of Dyna-Lites, but it is one of the best brands in the lighting industry and they are made to last forever.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 9.41.32 PM

When I got the kit, it was in great shape but perhaps a bit older than I’d imagined.  This became apparent because there wasn’t power cord.  I thought I’d go grab one from the garage, but three seconds of examination led me to the discover the power cords were more custom long ago and this plug required a special one.  I went to the local lighting store and they stared at it for a bit and said “hmmm, I think this is a 1958 model and I don’t know where you’ll find a plug like that.”

Needless to say that this became a journey.  After visiting about 20 stores, I finally found out what type the plug was called — a twist-lock and if you have seen the bestiary of plugs, it’s worth examining at NEMA.  Of course no one had one of these plugs in-town but  I eventually traced one plug to an electrical supply store in Maine which got it to me for $20.    Then I found that a couple of bulbs were burnt out and Keeble & Shuchat which replaced then for about $30.   Low and behold the lights worked great – immensely bright.

Now I needed light diffusers and finding the right speed ring was a trick, but Keeble & Shuchat gladly helped me at locating the right speed ring and getting me a beautiful Westcott soft box for it.   This entire process took about a year, as it wasn’t high priority and today I did the first quick shoot of my daughter with the new setup.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 9.25.04 PM

It was a two light set up with soft boxes.  The bright one is the new 2’x3′ soft box that I got on the Dyna-Lite and the dimmer one is the old Westcott moonlight  on a 2’x2′ soft box.   I liked the results with the new bright light and can’t wait to use them more.  The long story short is that Dyna-Lites last forever and you can recover these old beautiful systems.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 9.41.52 PM


Mira Zaslove Headshot

My husband, Jay Wacker, isn’t a very good model, so I often end up having to model for my own shots at Mira Zaslove Photography while I’m experimenting with lighting.  In this case, I needed a new headshot, so I was looking forward to this shoot.

Mira Zaslove

This shot was part the series I talked about in the last few posts.  Like the last post this was a taken with the Sony Carl Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens which is my favorite lens in my collection.  I’m looking forward to the update of this lens that is finally coming out.  I’ll have to see what the cost differential is to upgrade, though I’m in need of a high quality 50mm lens before then.

This photo was also taken at f/4.0 which is well within the range of apertures that this lens performs spectacularly in.  I feel pretty comfortable with the lens in the f/2.8 to f/11.0 range and even at its widest open, f/1.8 the lens can produce beautifully sharp photos. With the Sony a99, you can sync with lights simply up to 1/250s, I shot this photo at 1/200s at ISO50.

There’s quite a bit of separation between myself and the background, may be 12 feet (4 meters for my European readers), and at f/4.0 you get nice focus over my entire body but great bokeh in the background.  I like the bright red rose just peaking around and I’m not sure where the splash of blue is coming from.

This was a two light setup outside with a soft box and a speed light in a strip box.  Like the previous hair light experiment, I kept the strip box close. The big difference here is that because I changed my stance so that I was dominantly facing the strip light.  This effectively changes the strip light to the key light and makes the  soft box the fill light/hair light.   The hair light is doing a great job bringing out the high lights of my hair and the strip box is lighting my entire length evenly.

In the lighting diagram below, I’ve included a crop of the catchlights and connected them to the different lights.  You can see that the strip light is very bright.  Due to my stance, the soft box is just being caught in the side of eye.  I included a similar shot that I liked of myself a bit more — just because I loved it, but the focus just missed.

Lighting diagram for Mira Zaslove


Hair lighting

When you’re new to lighting, the concept of hair light seems so irrelevant, yet it can make a huge difference between having a a photograph filled with life and a photograph which seems static.

In the recent outdoor headshot shoot, I worked to get the hair light just right for this LinkedIn profile. We wanted to get a verdant outdoor experience which is common in many current high end social media profile photos.  To do this you need a  pretty narrow depth of field.  I opened up the aperture to f/4.0 which allows a pretty crisp focus over the entire face, particularly taking a wider field of view that shows the shoulders.  I used a 135mm lens on a full-frame camera which is a flattering length for portraits and exposes less of the background.

I tried a near and a far hair/fill light coming in from the right.  This changed how much light was caught by the hair and resulted in a subtle, but significant difference between the two photos.  The subject was Asian has gorgeous hair and with the light shining on it, auburn highlights come out of it.

While we went with the photo for the further hair light because we didn’t like the jacket, the near hair light really added an element of life to the photo.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.41.21 PM

Outdoor Lighting Juggling Shot

I recently did a photoshoot to get some new head shots.  Ultimately, for social media websites, which are universally 1×1 crops.  We’ve noticed recently that the crops of photos are wider than in the recent past, showing shoulders and more of the back ground.


Jay Wacker Juggling

I started with my husband who wanted a new profile picture for Quora, his new job. He wanted something appropriately casual and quirky.  He’s doing work as Quora’s “Ontology Architect,” organizing topics, which are building blocks of ideas.  So we decided to have him throw blocks up in the air.  After a dozen or so shots trying, we realized that he wasn’t going to be able keep his chin down and toss the blocks at the same time.  Of course we could always photoshop them in, but that is really cheating.   So instead, we decided to have Larry Liu throw up the blocks from underneath while I took the photo.

I usually like narrow depth of field for head shots, usually f/4.0 to f/5.6.  Sometimes we even like to go down to f/2.0.  We also usually like a mid-telephoto lens with a focal length of 135mm to 200mm.  But for this shot, we decided that we needed a wider field of view and we also wanted to have the blocks in reasonable focus, even if they were going to be blurred by motion, so we chose f/8.0.

There are additional challenges to shooting outside with lighting.  We usually simply connect one of the strobe lights and trigger the other view for the bounce light.  Outside this doesn’t work because there isn’t enough bounce light to trigger.  So we switched to pocket wizards (actually Yangnuo knockoffs).

It was a simple two light setup with the background lit by late afternoon sun.  Jay was in the shade so he could look at the camera without being blinded by the sun.  The key light was a soft box that was fairly straight-on and exposed to f/8.0.  The fill-light was a speed light in a strip box exposed to f/5.6.   The strip box was pretty close to the subject, giving a slightly more dramatic fill light.

The diagram of the setup is below with the resulting shot.  You can see the lighting in the catch-lights.Outdoor juggle lighting setup

Lynn Tao of Juniper

Lynn Tao of Juniper

I love narrow depth of field head shots.  This one was recently taken of Lynn Tao, the CEO and founder of Juniper (   She needed a head shot for some fund raising and we offered to take a couple of shots in our home studio before I gave birth (any day now).

Narrow depth of field lets you focus in on the eyes and lets the other elements drift off.  The lighting setup was pretty straight forward and shown below.  I used a softbox a bit off-axis exposed at f/8.0 as the key light, then used a shoot-through umbrella exposed at f/5.6 as the fill light, and then two strip boxes shooting down as hair lights exposed at f/5.6.  These are pretty strong hair lights, which gave a nice shine to her hair.

Screen Shot 2013-07-17 at 11.41.46 PM

One of the challenges with shooting with lighting is that you can’t shoot arbitrarily fast, typical sync-speeds with cameras are 1/160s to 1/250s.  Thus to get a narrow depth of field you either have to turn down the lights very low, but that requires shutting out ambient light or you have to come up with a way to reduce the amount of light getting into the camera.  I typically use variable neutral density (ND) filters to reduce the amount of light by some sizeable amount.  The ND filter I used in this shot was  55mm filter that reduces light by a factor of 2 to 400, i.e. 1 stop to 8.6 stops.  You can lose some sharpness with ND filters if they aren’t high quality.  This one fortunately is a good one.

Another interesting feature  about narrow depth of field head shots is that there is a minimal aperture you should ever use.  If you frame a portrait head shot, it will be about 60cm tall.  You always want to have about 3.5cm in focus.  Now if you change focal length, keeping the aperture number fixed and keeping the framing of the shot, the hyperfocal distance will change, but the distance to the shot divided by the hyperfocal distance stays fixed.   For a full frame camera, this works out to an aperture number of N=2.2, while for a APS-C crop sensor it works out to be N=1.6.  I’ve attached a slide showing how the math works out.

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 12.04.56 AM


Photobooth At An Eating Contest

Photobooth At Yishan Wong's Eating Contest

Last weekend we attended an eating contest. My husband was invited to this even through the question-and-answer social networking site Quora. I love shooting parties and an eating contest party was sure to have a lot of drama.

One thing I like to do at parties is to set up a photobooth off in the corner where I can have proper lighting and have a consistent setup. This way I can grab a decent number of perfect exposures that are tack sharp and need very little editing… well in principle.

The contest was held outside on a bright sunny day. I found a narrow corner that was out of the way and wouldn’t be disturbed. I still sandbagged the lights and the tripod with 25lbs weights. This was a great thing because there were some strong breezes that could have knocked over the camera and blown the lights away. Even indoors, it’s a good idea to sandbag the setup because kids or tipsy adults can bump into the equipment.

The narrow corner was only amenable to a 2 light setup, and in order to have people squeeze by the lighting and tripod, the key light, a softbox monolite, had to be essential on top of the camera. The fill light had be very close to the subject and set wide right and I used a monolite with a shoot-through-umbrella. The umbrella was set far enough off-center so that only one catchlight appeared.

The eating contest was going to have roughly 12 contests with a Win-Place-Show for each contest. They had victor crown and I decided that the victors for each event would be photographed with the crowns, with the King’s crown for the winner, the Queen’s crown for the second place and the Pharaoh’s hat to the third place. This went over pretty well and documented the winners for posterity.

I used my APS-C crop sensor camera for this shoot and used my full frame camera for the candids. Tend to be moving faster and hence more light. In order to the ISO down, a full frame works better (roughly one stop better). It’s also good, because the photobooth camera was going to be largely unattended throughout the night and I’d hate to lose or damage the full-frame (roughly four times more expensive).

On the camera, I used the 16-50mm f/2.8 kit lens. It’s a crop-sensor only lens, but it’s very nice and produces pretty good shots. It’s effectively a 24-75mm lens after taking into account the 1.5 times crop factor. You need pretty wide angles for photobooths when a group of people are cramming in, but when you have one or two people, it’s good to be able to get to 55-80mm (or longer if you have enough space).

As I described above, the lighting setup had some constraints to work around. We got stuck in a bit of traffic getting there, so we were down to about 15 minutes to set up — enough to get it set up comfortably, but not enough to experiment a lot. What ended up happening is that the exposures came off a bit cool. I didn’t get a chance to set a custom white balance and because the lights were in pretty close (only 8 feet/3 meters from the subject) the lighting was harsher than I would have liked.

Nevertheless, it still provided tack sharp images. The only issue was that they required some editing. The good news was that the same editing worked on every shot — which is one of the wonders of controlled lighting. I had to drop the highlights and bring out the shadows and dropped the blacks to not lose contrast.  I bumped up the vibrance and saturation to brighten the skin tones. I manually changed the white balance, bringing up orange and green. These weren’t huge changes, but you can see the difference. I think the photo quality is good and could stand up to printing.

The catchlight was a bit too dead-center on, but there was not much to be done. I would have liked to used a hair light shooting down in a strip box to help even out the light in the background. I don’t think it would have worked, but I didn’t get a chance to try it.

I’ll give myself a pass on this one. But I could have nailed it better.

Head Shot For Young Professionals

Head Shot Set Shoot

I had a head shot booked Saturday morning with two young, professional twins looking for photos for their workplace websites. I set up the home studio with a simple white backdrop.

I wanted to do a four light set up, a key and fill plus two hair lights to give a symmetric feel for any joint shots with the two twins. I first exposed the hair lights and set the exposure to f/2.8. The hair lights were in strip boxes with speedlites aimed down. I then set up the fill light to f/4.0 with a monolight with a shoot-through umbrella. Finally, I set up a softbox monolight as the key light exposed to f/5.6.

I set the lighting expose on the low side because my home studio has a low ceiling with white paint, which thankfully isn’t gloss. In the past, brighter exposures have had problems with bleed over from light bouncing off the walls and ceilings. I sometimes set up black backdrops on the sides and even the ceiling to control the bounces. But I didn’t want to set up these control measures because they look a bit ghetto, particularly the backdrop covering the ceiling.

After the shoot began, it went pretty fast, we knocked about 200 shots off divided evenly between Ashley, Dana and the pair together.  Throughout the shoot I used an 85mm f/1.4 on a full-frame camera shooting without a tripod and a 135mm f/1.8 on a APS-C crop sensor for an effective focal length of 202.5mm mounted on a tripod. The 85mm came out very well and provided more unique shots because of the free form, but the best shots in the lot were on the 135mm, which is better length for portraits.

I included a crop of the catch-lights. I’d be a bit happier with the catchlights being more symmetric and a bit wider. I am thinking about getting a second softbox and white shoot-through umbrella to be able to get symmetric catchlights.  I like the look when catchlights frame the pupils.  I wasn’t gong for that look here, but I think angling both catchlights wider would have given a better result.