Thursday, August 06, 2009

Keep It Simple Stupid

As a fairly regular reader of David Hobby's blog, Strobist, I am often amazed by reader-reactions to David's posts. How do I know what those reactions might be? Well, d'uh! I read the comments posted by David's many readers.

David's blog often focuses on the use of speedlites as light sources. That's not to say his Strobist blog is exclusively dedicated to speedlites but it's a subject that is responsible for much of Hobby's content.

I don't often use speedlites in my work but I almost always carry a couple of these small, battery-operated, flash-emitting ass-savers in my bag. I never know when my speedlites will come in handy or, more importantly, when they might represent, for whatever reason, my best (or only) option--potentially, my lighting salvation--in one situation or another.

What particularly astonishes me regarding Strobist readers' comments is when David posts simple, MacGuyveresque, solutions to various lighting-scenarios and readers are positively amazed! Apparently, more than a few of them experience near photo-epiphanies when reading Hobby's solutions to many day-to-day photo/lighting situations.

Hobby merely employs whatever he can scrounge--whatever is available--to modify and/or control the potentially harsh lighting that usually results when someone points a naked speedlite at their subject and fires away.

In his most recent update, Improvisational Light, Hobby describes the use of a small, white, garbage bag to diffuse a speedlite's photon-output. As result, more than a few of his readers were, from the tone of their comments, thunderstruck!




Photographers, please!

I'm not dissing Hobby's innovative, clever, and practical use of whatever is available to modify light. But it seems to me that many Strobist devotees must not be putting their thinking caps on when confronted with situations that require a small bit of logic, coupled with some creative thinking, to enhance the quality of whatever lighting source(s) they are employing, whether it's a speedlite, a monolight, or even bare naked sunlight. If they did, I suppose, web traffic to Hobby's most-excellent blog might be diminished. Hell! Mine too! Or, maybe not. While not having as large a reader-base as David enjoys, I do feature pretty naked women to help attract readers. That's gotta count for something, right?

Diffusing, modifying, and controlling light can usually be accomplished, in a pinch, with so many common, household, items or available surfaces. A list detailing all the potential light modifiers and controllers available to photographers would be a lengthy list indeed.

From garbage bags to shower curtains to sheets to windshield sunshades to pieces of Styrofoam and paper to walls to ceilings to floors to so much more, the world is filled with so many things that can be effectively utilized to produce aesthetically-pleasing light. When photographers purposely apply the same creativity to making good light (out of so many common things) that they attempt to apply to other creative aspects of their photography, they'll find they're less stupefied when someone details the use of common stuff to wrangle light.

Using simple items to effect good lighting doesn't represent thinking outside the box. (Unless you're using the outside of a box to bounce some light.) It's not about over-thinking for solutions. It's simply about thinking practically, logically, creatively, and improvisationally. Do yourself a favor: Try not to engage in paralysis-through-analysis when coming up with lighting solutions. Just try to K.I.S.S. your lighting problems goodbye solutions hello. (Keep It Simple Stupid.)

This stuff ain't brain surgery and it ain't rocket science. It's little more than ingenuous, practical thinking. Try it. You'll like it. And you'll be less amazed, though still impressed, when someone tosses out yet another lighting solution (using something you hadn't already thought of) by simultaneously engaging the creative and logical sides of their brains and wielding a common household item to modify or control light.

The diptych at the top, featuring two Dalias, is an example of simple, practical thinking as it relates to the light. The images were captured by my buddy, Rick, of Simi Studio, during our time at El Mirage Dry Lake shooting the PGS DVD and the Innovatronix spot.

In the image on the left-side, Dalia was lit with available light plus a white reflector from below. No problem there. The reflector-from-below technique is a great way to pleasingly fill when shooting pretty girl pics. It's also responsible, in the images above, for the pronounced catch-lights.

While Dalia was placed mostly out of the sun in a shaded area, the faded, white-painted, corrugated-metal wall on her right provided a bit of soft, reflective fill, helping out the images' exposure. Unfortunately, the sunlight hitting her hair was quite harsh and a few stops overexposed. In the right-side image, a scrim was brought in, overhead, to diffuse, soften, and knock down the sunlight about one stop. (In this case, a medium Wescott Scrim Jim.) Doing so retained highlights and also provided much more detail in her hair. Lighting-wise, a much better capture, IMO.

Although a manufactured scrim was used, I'm confident something else could have been scrounged up and employed to knock down and diffuse the sunlight: A thin white sheet or other material or almost anything that was color-neutral and translucent. (Actually, since Rick was shooting in monochrome mode, color-neutral wouldn't have mattered much.)

I did the processing on the two images and, truthfully, didn't spend much time/work on them. I suppose I could have done a better job with the levels of Dalia's skin, making them appear more equal. Certainly, a more gifted PS processor than myself could make either of those images sing-- such is the way of those skilled in the magical arts of Photoshop wizardry.

Rick snapped the pics with his Canon 40D in B&W mode. (No conversion was necessary.) They were exposed at ISO 100, f/6.3 @ 125th. If I recall, he used his Canon 28-135 IS USM zoom lens. Exif data recorded the focal length at 40mm.


Paps said...

Thanks for the reminder. It's been a while since I heard the "Less Gear, More Brain, Better Light" phrase.

Anonymous said...

>>Rick snapped the pics with his Canon 40D in B&W mode.

Out of curiousity, why did Rick use B&W mode? I ain't saying it's wrong. It's just something that I don't do.

A shooter can get better B&W photos by shooting in color and converting later in PS. There are countless ways of converting color to B&W in PS. Rather than my camera, I prefer making the decisions as to how to transform the photograph from color to B&W.

Further, a shooter can keep the color and do B&W. Put differently, a shooter can keep more options open--which is almost always a good thing.


jimmyd said...


Out of curiousity, why did Rick use B&W mode? I ain't saying it's wrong. It's just something that I don't do.

I don't either. And I asked him the same thing for, pretty much, the same reasons you mentioned. If I remember right, I think he said something about attending a SuperShoots workshop and, well, I guess that's where he learned or decided or was inspired to use the B&W mode on his camera.

I could be wrong about this tho. So maybe I can get him to answer your question, here, in the comments.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, good is good enough. Just took a webinar where someone was showing his workflow. He said, that while using some techiques limit your ability to back track, the results are salable, and as pro, that was his bottom line.

I personally like to shoot RAW + JPEG with the JPEG on the B/W setting. That way I have a full file for tweaking, if I feel I need it.

It is possible to get very nice black and white images directly from the cameras of today with their custom settings.

rick@simistudio said...

@ KS and jimmyd,

I indeed learned the technique of shooting high key in camera BW at a Super Shoots workshop.

I still use it because it’s a simple way to achieve the results I'm looking for.

I'm not that well versed in Photoshop beyond basic adjustments and channel mixer BW conversions. I guess I tend to lean toward the "KISS" principal with high key BW!


Anonymous said...


Thank you for answer, especially as we seemed to have asked the same questions.


Given that you are shooting RAW and jpg (b&w), you have all your options avaiable to you. While out-of-the-camera might be saleable, one should ask if photos would be more saleable or sell for a higher price if additional tweaking was done.

That said, everyone has a preferred workflow.


Thank you for your response.


While I certainly don't purport to be a wizard at Photoshop, here are a three good references for those interested:

1) Chromasia photo blog. David provides tutorials on Photoshop. Although he has many great photographs, here are two B&W images that I like:



I like the second image especially because it is "East meets West, Old meets Young, Male meets Female." I love all the contrasts.

Once you're at David's blog, you can navigate through his menus to find the tutorials if interested.

2) An absolutely incredible book:

Professional Photoshop: The Classic Guide to Color Correction - Fifth Edition
By Dan Margulis
Peachpit Press

3) An other easier reference book:

Black and White in Photoshop CS3 and Photoshop Lightroom
By Leslie Alsheimer
with Bryan O'Neil Hughes
Focal Press


Anonymous said...

RE: "While out-of-the-camera might be saleable, one should ask if photos would be more saleable or sell for a higher price if additional tweaking was done."

Donald Jack used to do a demonstration. He would shoot a 12 exposure roll and lay them out and then ask his student to pick the best one. Once found he would remove it and then say, pick the best one from what was remaining.

After doing this four times, he took the remaining 8 and put them in a folio and showed and sold to the client. Wall portraits and the folio too.

The lesson, is nothing is good or bad until it is compared to something else. All the images were "good", and unless you had the "better" ones to compare to, the old "good" becomes the "best".

There comes a point of diminishing returns. If you can sell a 16x20 of a "OK" picture, does selling a 16x20 of a "more tweaked and time spent picture" really help you?

By the way this assumes your "OK" images aren't "crap".

Anonymous said...

>>There comes a point of diminishing returns. If you can sell a 16x20 of a "OK" picture, does selling a 16x20 of a "more tweaked and time spent picture" really help you?

There are so many holes in that question, I am not even sure where to begin plugging. First, one has to ask, if spending an additional ten minutes creating a much better photograph is worth it? Going back to your "experiment," it might have been more interesting to ask, what would you pay for best quartile, second quartile, third quartile and last? Or, do you think all 16x20 photographs are equal in value? Next, do you like putting work out there that you know could be much better with just a modicum of more time and effort? Me, personally, I find that even just three minutes of additional tweaking out of the camera makes a substantial difference. So why would I want to publish something that is far below its potential and that is a direct reflection on my personal skill, effort, and professionalism?

Each to his or her own. Given that others will have to part with their hard earned cash, I should at least put forward an honest effort.

Where I think we would find common ground is where some people spend an inordinate amount of time on the computer and not enough time behind the lens. There is a point of diminishing returns. For me--and I can't speak for others--the point of diminishing returns is not straight out of the camera. Quick color, contrast, saturation, cropping, and sharpening adjustments are all value added. And of course, if there are any blemishes, those can be taken care of as well.

This discussion could easily devolve into a RAW versus jpg type religious argument. So go with whatever works for you.


Anonymous said...

OK my last response got eaten by the internet.

First you totally missed the point, which was, nothing is good or bad until compared to something else. So you could remove the top three images and show the rest, the client would pick the new "best" and be perfectly happy. Remember we made the assumption that all the pictures were good, as far as pose, expression, lighting, exposure, etc. So best is a relative term.

In the real world we actually tend to remove the four weakest images and leave all our favorites.

The other sidetrack you took was the assumption that we weren't gong to fix the occasional blemish, etc. No one said that. Likewise, no one said that we weren't going to , ". . .Quick color, contrast, saturation, cropping, and sharpening adjustments are all value added..', except maybe that part about color as this is a black and white JPEG from the camera we are talking about.

Finally, YES all 16x20's are the same value as most working professional studios have a price list on which 16x20's are listed. So it doesn't matter which one they buy, the cost(value) is the same.

So the only way you can make more money( on the purchase of one 16x20)is to cut costs. Which is employee time, storage, steps, and put you back into the camera sooner (or marketing suite) making more pictures.