Monday, October 29, 2007

$9 DIY Ring Light

Ring lights are all the rage now, and DIY versions are way more practical than buying a $1000+ flash head. I'm a typical sheep, following the herd, so I decided to try my hand at it too...

Although my story starts early this month when I was working my way through the local OSH (Orchard Suppy Hardware) with my daughter on my shoulders (because riding up there is way more fun than riding in the cart). I looked in the lighting aisle to check for some CFL replacements in our house, when a circular fluorescent light caught my eye and made me think, "Ring Light!" I looked at it, pondered, looked some more ("DAAADDDY! Let's go!") and left, not wanting to spend our limited funds on another useless photography project.

Once I got home and thought more about it, I realized:

  1. The thing was really cheap (the receipt is at right) -- $8.99+tax for the bulb and ballast!
  2. We could always stick it in a lamp if I didn't need it for photography.
So on our next shopping trip I picked one up along with a 30W bulb. I ended up taking the 30W bulb back because it didn't have the ballast (driver) with it and the 23W version wasn't compatible as far as I could tell. The pic of the bulb in the package opened up this entry (apologies for the crappy sun-lit photo).

So, you're supposed to replace your standard incandescent bulb in a lamp with this thing (you know, a lamp with a shade). Just screw in the ballast/center thing and the bulb itself is a horizontal circle in the lamp. It really comes in two parts: the bulb, with four prongs for the cord from the ballast, and the ballast unit which has the standard light bulb threads and the cord that plugs into the bulb (as shown below). The ballast also has a support to hold the bulb, but that easily snaps off.

Since I'm not the type to take a long time and build a nice support rig, I screwed the ballast into the socket on an Ikea lamp (handily attached to a long cord) and held the ballast and bulb in my right hand while operating the camera with my right. DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME! YOU COULD GET ELECTROCUTED! (sorry, had to include that for liability reasons... although with hundreds of volts running through the unit, I probably shouldn't have done it). The other side of the lens looked something like this:

Attaching the bulb and ballast (along with some sort of reflector and light stand connector) would be no trouble at all. It was reasonably convenient in the fashion I held it (takes a little time to get things settled in the right place, but then they are secure)... but again, I'm an idiot who doesn't mind a little electrocution once in a while. After all, growing up surrounded by farms and electric fences, we made a lot of dumb bets involving electricity (and fire, but that's another blog entry altogether).

The images that resulted were... passable. I actually wanted to reshoot (hence the delay between the purchase of the equipment and this post) but didn't find time. Fluorescent tubes have two major problems: not very bright (compared to a flash, at least) and poor color balance (I shot RAW, and was able to get reasonably good color balance, but the sliders were almost all the way to the end, if you know what I mean).

Luckily, my daughter was around to help me:

Although the best picture, IMHO, was of me that she took. Well, OK, for the record, I held the light and the camera, and had her push the button, but she nailed the focus!

Overall, I'd say it is a very workable solution for head shots, close-ups, and or some macro work. It'd be easy to rig the light up on a frame with the camera, and it does give that really nice circular highlight in the eyes. I did wish the diameter was a bit larger than the 9" or so it is (sometimes my fingers got in the way) and the intensity was pretty weak. Although I got 1/200 sec @ f/2.8 and ISO 200, which isn't too bad, but the shots are very close. The 30W bulb would help a lot (I didn't see any ballasts for it at my local OSH though) and a reflector would also probably double the light output. If you want to play around with a ring light, this might be the cheapest solution!

No ring light post would be complete without referencing those who have come before. I'll do it in a relatively random list of links and brief commentary:
Honestly, if this stuff interests you, digging around in those links will keep you busy for a very, very long time... For me, I haven't decided if I'm going to plunk the thing into a lamp or rig up a finished version.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Anatomy of a Photo: Garden Spider

It seems like I've always got posts brewing, but by the time I make some time to write a post up, it's a week later than my last post. Oh well, I guess you can expect posts about once a week now :) That being said, I have a few DPC challenge related posts and a ringlight post in various stages of the pipeline, so there's always hope.

This post is another in my Anatomy of a Photo series, which I haven't updated for 4(!) months. Yikes, almost as scary as a spider up close.

First, some background. A few weeks ago I noticed a rather large Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus, also known as a Cross Spider, cool pic here) in a plant right outside my back door. Compared to the normal daddy long legs I see around the house, garden spiders look so cool and she has a nice three-foot web that she maintains daily (I'm not really sure of the sex, so I'll say she in deference to Charlotte's Web). I took photos a few different days, and decided that I wanted to enter a picture of her in a DPC challenge. My opportunity came in the Macro VI challenge. The image I finally settled on was:

And it got a 5.75, good for 100th of 247 images in the contest. At first, I was disappointed (especially when it started the first day around a 5.2) but I'm beginning to understand why it did poorly. For one thing, there were a ton of spiders in the contest, and it didn't get much for originality. It also has some focus issues (mostly due to depth of field, more on that later) and the really cool part of the spider (the head) is really tiny.

What got me really excited about the image was the level of detail I was able to achieve with my lowly reversed Nikkor-H 50mm F/2. I was starting to get a little discouraged with the fuzziness of the images at 100% crops (not horrible, but nothing compared to my other lenses). But these came out really sharp, probably because of the flash. I still think the Nikkor-H has some problems with highlights (they seem to bleed to adjacent pixels more than they should) but that is likely because of the coatings, or lack of them, and the fact that the lens is reversed.

To give you an idea of detail, below is a 100% crop (click to see it full-size). For this image, I did apply USM to sharpen it further, but you get the idea of the quality. Realistically, you can get a super sharp image if you do a 50% crop (downsample by 50%). And seeing a spider at high res is really cool (see the 1024x807 image on Flickr).

Of course, this is an photo anatomy post, so I should describe what went into the image.

First, since I neglected to get a setup shot (oops) but I'll describe it for you. Start with a very large flowering plant (I don't know the type) with the spider's web running north-south oriented vertically. She liked to hide in a dead flower on the north side, but I often caught her in the middle of the web during or after she has caught something to eat. I did shoot the spider when she was hiding, but she has good camoflage and is hard to see, even at a 1:1 macro. So I waited until she was in the middle of the web and the sun was hitting her (around noon, camera to the west of the web, sun at upper camera right).

For some reason, she always walked on the web with her body on the west side of the web and almost always upside down! Not great for photos, especially with the position of the sun. On the day I got the picture, I saw her in the middle of the web and grabbed the camera but the lighting was horrible because her head was in shadow. Back inside to grab the flash and light-stand. I taped a diffuser (scrap of white copy paper) on the business end of my Sunpak 383 and set it up to camera lower right. Since she was always upside down, I quickly dialed in an exposure with the flash as the primary and the sun a few stops darker than the proper exposure, to get the background to drop and just give highlights and separation from the sun. This was about 1/200 seconds, ISO 400, and F/16 on the Nikkor-H (I handheld the camera since the flash stopped motion well).

Here's the result when I was shooting pretty much straight on:

I liked the image, but I couldn't get the back and the head in focus at the same time because my depth of field was less than a millimeter. So I decided to shoot upwards (rather difficult, actually, because I kept bumping the plant trying to get in there) and got something like this:

Again, I like this, although the slow shutter speed caused the ambient exposure to blur, so I kept taking shots until I got the one I liked. I really liked the diagonal tilt in the submitted photo, but I'm not wild about the background colors (darn sky!) and lack of focus on the legs. There's also a really nasty highlight on the back, which I burned a bit, but it still was distracting.

If I could do it again (and I might) I'd use two flashes to crosslight the spider and mix in some ambient too (but smaller levels). I guarantee there's another, more unique view in there too, but the plant makes it difficult to maneuver. Sadly, I don't have the heart to actually take her off her web and put her in a more controlled environment. Sad, but she's been out there at least a month, and I don't feel right about it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Real Life Photography

So I've been reduced to reading three photography sites almost every day:

  1. Strobist
  2. DPChallenge (mostly the forums)
  3. Photo Business News & Forum (by John Harrington)
Well, it turns out that Harrington has started a separate blog called Assignment Construct based around his assignments, and he's already got over a 100 posted. From what I've seen, I'll be checking back often, because he gives great overviews of the jobs he does and there are a ton of little things you can learn from the (seemingly shallow) posts.

My big take home message: his photos aren't really that sexy, but he gets paid well to make them. Really, his clients are paying for his professionalism and experience.

To be honest, I've pretty much given up the idea of a part time photography business. It just won't be worth it, because we need cash RIGHT NOW and I can make over $25/hr teaching and tutoring the SAT. Businesses have lots of upfront costs, losts of time involved for advertising, equipment, insurance, etc. It'd be unlikely I'd even be breaking even in the next month, so the idea has pretty much been shelved and photography is back in solid hobby territory. Of course, I've been lazy, I haven't updated my welcome page here yet...

I think a lot of photographers getting in the business probably want to be making the sexy photos and living the sexy photographer lifestyle. If anything, very few photographers can have success in that area, like Dave Hill and Joey Lawrence (god, that guy's been everywhere lately, including a bunch of posts on Strobist and in the DPC forums where he's been a member for three years). But it's great to see what goes into the average photographer's job (if you can call John Harrington average) -- great customer service and professional results.

This idea has been hammered home in my tutoring job too; fostering customer relationships can go far when it comes to getting later business and resolving conflicts smoothly if something goes wrong. The actual tutoring isn't as important as the rest, at least once you've had some experience. If I ever start up a photography business, that will be my goal; focus on customer relationships and professionalism first. The photography should be easy in comparison.

Not everybody can be a world-famous photographer. Most of us have to focus on the customers in our local area and be happy just pleasing them. After all, they write our paychecks!


As a side note, browsing through Technorati I rediscovered That Photo Over There. While Aidan hasn't written much lately (about once a month!), his reviews are generally above the typical photography blogger. In particular, he's got a good description of running a Canon 400D tethered, something I've been meaning to do with my camera for a while but haven't gotten around to it. His info/walkthrough seems really useful and I hope to try it out in the near future.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Crouching Dragonfly, Hidden Frog

My interest in photography is coming back; I've submitted two images during the past week to DPC and one is running at 5.7 while another is running around a 6.3 and will likely get a top ten.

For today, a few pictures from a walk in the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve that I took a few weeks ago. These aren't amazing pictures, but I wanted to post them just for the title opportunity... Both pics were taken with my 20D and Canon 70-200mm F/4.

My goal on the walk was to get some pictures of the red and blue dragonflies in the area. But I was running late and didn't get to the far side of the pond (or do they call it a lake?). So I just stepped down off the levy (right next to the sign that says stay on the levy, I'm such a rebel) and settled in a spot near the edge of the water. I wasn't disappointed, as the little guy below perched a couple of yards away. Although I would have preferred a different view (and should have stopped down a bit to get his head in focus) I had a few come out nice.

As I was quietly getting shots of the dragonfly, I spotted a rather large frog watching me from the cattails at the edge of the water. So I got a shot of him too, although I was pretty constrained on my angle and had to shoot around some weeds.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Korean Wasp

Found this little guy while I was walking near the beach one morning (actually, I saw his type a few times). Of course, he's actually not that little -- maybe an inch and a half long (about double the size of an American wasp). So I wasn't exactly going to put my hands near him to give a sense of scale.

He was so big that he couldn't fly very well -- which made it easier for me to photograph him.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Beach Walk (still Korea)

Wow. I lined up the pictures for two entries assuming I'd finish them up when I had a chance. A week later I'm finally posting one of them. Yikes, I must be busier (or lazier) than I thought. On the other hand, I'm still posting pictures from my Korea trip two months ago...

Anyway, the following three pictures are from the walk down to Jungmun beach (scarily, my blog is the first page that pops up when I enter Jungmung beach! Wait, that's because I mispelled (err, misspelled) it... fixed now). It had a long set of steps down a sharp, rain-forest like cliff. Here's from an overlook towards the top:

This is a shot of the stairs about half-way down. It was a very lush, fertile, wet area.

And here is the view from the bottom when you look up. I love the tunnel of vines effect!

The thing I really couldn't wrap my head around when I was there was that it sometimes snows during the Jeju winter. Crazy!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Seonimgyo Bridge

[Yes, really, two posts in two days! Still dumping Korea pictures...]

One of the attractions near Jungmun Tourism Complex is the Seonimgyo bridge (apologies I never got a picture of it from far away so you could see how it is located):

Here it is in the background of a Korean Gatorade I bought:

And here it is before I crossed back over to head to the hotel.

This image was a bit nasty to post-process because it had the interlacing problem from my flaky 20D sensor (a problem that hasn't re-occurred since I've returned to the States). Using the interlace option in PSP XI (on the rotated image) took care of most of the problem, and then I had to spot-edit some areas of a very saturated blue in the dark areas. There were still some remaining artifacts but they aren't evident in these web-resolution images.

I was playing with the exposure of the bridge and I really liked the sun's effect in the sky and the shadowed (almost a silhouette) bridge.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Lost in Translation

[Still pushing out some entries from my trip to Jeju, Korea. Which is good, because I haven't taken many pictures lately.]

I strongly suspect that English is not a required language in South Korean schools. My first hint was when I called my hotel to make arrangements, asked for someone who could speak English, and after ten minutes the only person they could find had a ton of trouble understanding me. And this is a large, Western-style hotel in an area of international tourism.

I suspect, even in Japan, you'll find a lot more people that can speak decent English.

I stayed at The Suites which was an excellent hotel if you can get past the high prices. They had an awesome breakfast buffet with both Korean and western foods, including little omelettes. The hotel, as well as the whole area (Jungmun Tourism Complex, near Seogwipo) was a strange mix of Korean and Western style.

For instance, a few blocks from the hotel was the Hooters Plaza, which, as far as I could tell, didn't even include a Hooters. Given a choice of all the American restaurant chains, why would they choose Hooters? Nevertheless, on my third day there I found out about it and got excited (not because of Hooters, but because there were other american eateries there like Cinnabun. Of course, they were all closed and deserted... maybe Korea isn't as excited about tight t-shirts and cinnamon pastries as some planner thought?

Right next to The Suites, there is the Hotel Hana, the discount hotel in the area. Of course, I screwed up and didn't get a room there before it sold out (which might have been a blessing, since 10 rooms were invaded one night and a lot of stuff was stolen). They did have a mediocre Korean/American lunch buffet (12,000 won, or about $14) which was one of the best deals in the area:

Every time I passed that sign I had to smile because it always looked like it said Born again as a reasonably clean hotel. Good to know the hotel found God though.

The best (worst?) sign I found is below. Click to see it larger if you have trouble reading it.

Why, oh why, didn't they get someone who knows English to proofread it? It has a good message though:

Do not make regretful things that your family and friends feel sad by accidental mistakes.