Sunday, May 27, 2007

Non-Industrial Light & Magic

I splurged a little this week.

Since about the beginning of the year, I've been running into a wall when it comes to getting more creative with the photographs I take. The two most common problems being:
  1. I need more light. Either that, or I'm stuck with using really wide apertures and leaving only a thin sliver of the image in focus.
  2. I need to control available light. Either there's too much spill from the available light source which clutters up the image, or it's simply coming in from the wrong direction.
So many hours of online research and several trips to Keeble and Shuchat later, I'm now the proud owner of:
  • 1 Olympus FL-36 flash
  • 2 PocketWizard Plus IIs transceivers (to remotely trigger said FL-36)
  • 1 Westcott 43" silver umbrella
  • 1 Manfrotto light stand (over 6', but collapses to 19")
Add to this an assortment of DIY snoots and gridspots (created out of the boxes that all of the above loot arrived in) and one trigger-happy amateur photographer, and you've got the makings of a joyous long weekend.

First experiment: Creating soft light for a headshot. The difference between soft and hard light is all in the shadow. Actually, it's all in the transition from light to shadow. And that's all about "apparant light-source size", which is just a fancy name for the size of the light source relative to the size of the object being illuminated. Take a gander at the following diagram, where the white bars on the left represent light sources that are illuminating the circular object on the right:

In each case, imagine you're an ant moving along the surface of the object (see arrow), you first hit a point at which the far edge of the light source starts to go out of view. From now on the amount of light hitting the surface gets progressively less until the near edge also goes out of view leaving the object completely dark. What the top and bottom diagrams show is the difference in the distance between the first and second point when the size of the light source is changed relative to the object. The smoother the transition, the softer the light. Here are a couple of examples which demonstrate the quality of soft light.

The first two are using the flash shot into the umbrella from about 3 feet away, while the third uses the flash bounced off the ceiling to create an even bigger apparent source.

Second experiment: Controlling light spread. This is where the snoot comes in handy. Using it to restrict the spread of the beam of light, you can get it to illuminate exactly what you want without scattering photons willy-nilly and contaminating the scene. I've always wanted to create those funky smoke photographs you see once in a while, and having a nice tight beam of light coming in from the side allowed me to capture these beauties:

Happiness :)

Monday, May 07, 2007


...we should rechristen it SueTube. Don't you?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Cheap Shot

One of the reasons I like Flickr over Picasaweb is that it has succeeded in getting the "community" aspect of the site to work. As an amateur with a lot to learn, being able to discuss photography and techniques with others helps enormously.

For example, I've long been a fan of the Strobist group which talks about using relatively inexpensive household garbage to achieve professional quality lighting. Today I decided to try out one of the cheap tricks mentioned for achieving nice omnidirectional soft light for macro shooting, when all you're stuck with is hard sunlight. Jayita had picked up a gorgeous basket of strawberries at the farmers' market this morning, so that was my subject du jour. Before I show you what the setup was, here's the result:

Now here's the setup in all its glory:

2 sheets of paper and 3 pieces of tape. Total cost about 1.7 cents, so I can save up for all those lenses on my list.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Monk 'n' Trane --- Straight, No Chaser

In early 2005, a recording engineer named Larry Appelbaum discovered a set of 8 acetate-tape reels while mucking about at the Library of Congress, which were labeled "Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957" with a handwritten note hinting "T. Monk" along with some song titles. As it turns out, this was a hitherto unpublished recording by Voice of America of the Monk/Coltrane date at Carnegie Hall.

You see, Monk and Coltrane worked together for a very brief period --- just over a year (April 1957 to September 1958) --- and while they performed together extensively during that time, there is a devastating paucity of recorded evidence of their work, which made Appelbaum's excavations all the more stunning.

Monk would've turned 90 this year, and as part of what they're calling the Monk Project, SFJazz's Spring Season yesterday featured a reimagining of that historic Carnegie Hall concert with Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade taking on the mantles of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Shadow Wilson respectively.

When signing up for the tickets earlier this year, I was initially a little skeptical of attending one of those reenactment concerts which usually feature too much replication and very little imagination. I'm glad I ignored those initial anxieties. While they stuck closely to the original set list with a lot of Monk's standards like "Crepuscule with Nellie" and "Monk's Mood", this was truly a "reimagination". Blade and Redman were particularly inspired, while Mehldau anchored the quartet in Monk's trademark harmonic eccentricities. I was a tad disappointed in McBride's showing --- he tended to play in a detached sort of way, which was unlike the previous times I've seen him as a bandleader.

For cute irony, they rounded off the night with an encore performance of Straight, No Chaser. Awesome! :)

You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It's making it sound right that's not easy.

--Thelonious Sphere Monk

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Avishai Cohen @ Yoshi's

Peter and I caught Avishai Cohen's trio at Yoshi's last night. Normally, when it comes to attending live shows, I'm somewhat risk-averse, and tend to go with musicians of whose music I've already heard (and liked) a significant chunk. In that sense, this show departed from that ethic, since I've only ever heard his playing on one album --- the Chick Corea New Trio's Past, Present and Futures.

My leap of faith wasn't misplaced. While his band isn't as tight as some of the other acts that I've gotten used to seeing (like the SFJazz Collective), the energy that pours out of these young guys is astounding, and made for quite an exhilarating evening. Both Peter and I are convinced we should attend more of these when we can.

Btw, the setlist was primarily from his As Is... Live At The Blue Note album. Sidemen on this date: Shai Maestro (piano), Mark Guilliana (drums).