Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gig Tonight

I know my posts have been few and far between lately. That's for a reason -- I've started the final push to my PhD Defense and I'm trying to eliminate activities that don't relate to my dissertation or making decent money.

Which pretty much means cutting out most of the blogging. Except at my new dissertation progress blog, Freakin PhD. If you're curious about the thoughts that are going through my head as I finish up my decade-long degree, check it out. If you are mostly here for the photo stuff, well, posting will be about once a week at best for the next few months.

And as for microstock, I've pretty much killed the idea. But that's a whole 'nother post...

* * * * *

Anyway, the reason I'm posting now is because I've got a gig tonight helping out a friend with his party photography business. This will likely lead to a longer-term deal, but I can't share any details or images for now. For now, even the business name and website will remain a secret until I get permission to share them.

Tonight I'm mostly there to help out and get a feel for their setup and how they run things. I think I can contribute significantly in manpower, photo technique/quality, and business ideas (although marketing, probably not so much) but I'll know more after we run the event tonight. There's definitely potential for success in this area of the market, but with the economy declining it is going to be that much harder to find a steady stream of clients.

I've also been tasked to get some candids during dinner, which I am nervous about even though I'm confident (and there's really no pressure because nothing was promised to the client). A flash that does TTL metering would be nice, but since I don't have one, I'm going to hope for ceiling bounce with a Nikon SB-20 and also plan on doing some available light with a monopod. If the ceiling isn't white, I'll just use the SB-20 straight -- the performance of the SB-20 auto mode is so much better than my Sunpak 383 that I just don't feel comfortable with the 383.

My biggest concern is perfection, or lack of it. I tend to spend too much time trying to get shots perfect when nobody else cares that much. So one of the things I'll focus on for tonight is just shooting and not worrying as much about perfect technicals. After all, a photography business is only 10% photography yet 30% preparation and 60% client relations.

I'd love to say I'll share some images tomorrow but I really can't; I have a strong feeling we aren't going to have anybody sign any sort of release.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm a Pro!

Two things confirmed me as a professional photographer today.

The first was taking some shots of the experimental apparatus of one of my lab mates. He bought me lunch, so I guess I'm a pro because I took compensation for photography.

The second was that Costco called me up while I was doing the first shoot. Turns out the photograph for our Christmas cards this year (the shot that opened the post) was done by a pro so I need to have a signed release when I pick up our cards.

I'm not sure if they'll just take my word for it that I took the shot or if I'll have to sign a release saying that I give myself permission to use my pictures in my Christmas card. Not sure if I should even both calling before I go or just be ready with a form to sign.

It sure was nice to be called a pro though!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: La Crosse BC-900 Battery Charger

A month ago I posted about three of the best high end NiMH battery chargers out there and mentioned that I decided to purchase and review the La Cross Technology BC-900 AlphaPower Battery Charger. (Note: the BC-900 has been replaced by the La Crosse Technology BC-9009 AlphaPower Battery Charger, which appears to be the same package, just a different color, and for the same price). While the charger has its user interface quirks, steady use over the past few weeks has proven to me that it is the best battery charger deal out there, period. The link above takes you to Amazon, the cheapest place I've found for the charger (currently $40 shipped).

Before I get into the details about how well the BC-900 works, let me explain why it is a good deal. Actually, the picture above will save me some time -- the $40 package at Amazon contains everything shown above, plus a few things I couldn't fit in!

Specifically, you get:

  • BC-900 charger and power supply
  • Carrying case
  • 4 AA batteries (2600 mAh)
  • 4 AAA batteries (1000 mAh)
  • 4 C adapters (letting you put AA batteries into something that takes Cs)
  • 4 D adapters (requires C adapters to adapt As to Ds)
  • Instruction booklets
What makes this such a good deal is the extra batteries (worth $5-8) and the C/D adapters (which I haven't seen anywhere else).

Charger Functionality:

A top of the line battery charger should do three things: charge, discharge, and let you know what is happening. The BC-900 does all these things very well.

Sure, in the instructions and sales literature it talks about four different modes (Charge, Discharge, Test, Refresh) but really, all the modes just boil down to combinations of charging and discharging:
  • Charge: Just charge the battery until it is full.
  • Discharge: Discharge the battery completely, then charge it until it is full.
  • Test: Charge the battery, discharge the battery, then recharge the battery to full.
  • Refresh: Discharge the battery fully, then recharge, then discharge, then recharge, etc. Stops when the capacity (measured during discharge) stops increasing. This can take DAYS, but is a good way to rejuvenate really old batteries.
Another really great thing about the charger is the ability to charge (and control the mode) of each battery separately. This is awesome for me, because I no longer have to worry about matching batteries during charging, or discharge batteries to get them to match. 95% of the time I just need to charge batteries at the slowest rate (200 mA) which is the default. So I just pop them in the charger and remove them when they say full, even if the other ones aren't done yet.

I can also control charging rate (200 mA, 500 mA, 1000 mA, 1800 mA (two batteries max)) with a few pushes of a button. Discharge rate will always be half of charging rate. If you do the math, this means that the test and refresh modes take a long, long time to complete at the lowest charging rate. Since most newer batteries don't suffer from memory effect (inability to take full charge if you don't discharge them before charging) most of the time I don't bother with the discharge cycle. As my batteries age, I'll probably start doing full discharges before every fifth charge or something like that, but for now, I'm not too worried.

Display and User Interface:

One of the great things about the BC-900 is the display. In addition to displaying the mode, it also displays the instantaneous voltage (good for estimating how much charge the battery has or how soon it will finish), time spent (dis)charging, capacity in mAh, and (dis)charging current.

Specially notable is the capacity display shown in mAh. For instance, in charging mode, it will display how much charge the battery has taken. This lets you know how much the battery was used or if the battery is starting to suffer from memory effect. Similarly, the discharge mode displays the capacity discharged or charged depending on the current state. Finally, the test and refresh capacity shows the status of the most recent discharge (for the most accurate estimate of capacity). Not too many chargers let you know exactly how much capacity an old battery has left; the BC-900 does. That alone is worth a lot.

Also, there are buttons which let you set each battery mode and charging rate individually, but I have yet to master them. The first few times I tried to set battery rates/modes individually I reset the modes of the other batteries (not a big deal, but I need to spend more time figuring it out). Again, though, most of the time I just need to charge at 200 mA, which is as simple as putting the batteries in the charger and walking away.

I did use the 1000 mA charging rate once when I left an SB-20 on all night and rendered a set of batteries (that I needed) stone dead. So, I popped them in at 1000 mA for a half-hour while I was setting up other things and had enough charge to get what I wanted done.

One thing that really bugs me is the lack of a backlight or LEDs. Just a single red/green LED for each battery would let me see at a glance when the batteries were finished charging without crossing the room. Minor, but on my other chargers, I find it very handy to be able to see if they are full at a glance.

Batteries and Adapters:

While batteries are pretty cheap commodities (good NiMH batteries cost between $1.50 to $2.00 each) it is always handy getting extras. In this case, the batteries alone are worth maybe $10, easily boosting the value of the BC-900 package over the BC-700 charger (which is near identical). And what can I say, the included batteries are... functional batteries. The first few charges didn't get me to full capacity, but now I'm getting 2400-2500 mAh out of them.

A big plus for me is the adapters included in the package. Yes, they are pretty cheap and no, I haven't needed them yet. But, since similar adapters cost about $2 each new, that's another $8 added to the value of this package. Again, this is an EXCELLENT deal.

Add the carrying case in, which while not necessary, is useful, and it's an even better deal. The carrying case, by the way, has slots for the adapters and would be useful for carrying around a store of batteries with the charger. Why I'd need to do that... well, maybe if I was shooting with three-four speedlights on a regular basis, it'd be handy. I have no problem taking it for free though!


I'm a numbers guy -- I love numbers and stats. And more than anything, this charger gives me numbers. I can tell exactly how much charge a battery has taken, check the status of my batteries, or just pop batteries in whenever I need to and know that they'll be charged safely.

And that is the real key -- convenience. The La Crosse BC-900 makes battery charging very convenient for me and gives me all the information I need to maintain the large stock of batteries I need around my house. If you use a lot of batteries (which is pretty much any family) you WILL save money with this charger.

Speaking of money, honestly, I would have bought this charger for $40 without the extras. Add the extras in, and I think this is one of the best purchases I've made. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but there's a reason I keep repeating this stuff.

I love this little charger!

Note: On Nov 2nd 2009, I started this post and the charger was $38. On Nov 4th, the price bumped up $2 to $40. On November 7th, the price dropped $3 to $37 (with the tag 'Friday Sale'). Not sure why these fluctuations occur, but I'd recommend monitoring the price for a few days if you have the time. Don't wait too long though, with the newer model out (La Crosse Technology BC700 Alpha Power Battery Charger) at only a few dollars less but no extras, I suspect they may phase out the BC900 soon. Current price is below: (link removed)

Note: Almost a year later, it appears that the BC-900 was replaced by the BC-1000. Consensus is that it is the same charger, maybe with a few bugs out of the firmware, and a different color to the case. I highly recommend the BC-1000, especially with the package (batteries and such). My charger (and batteries) is still working perfectly! The updated link to the Amazon page is below:

Lighting Setup:
For those who enjoy lighting setups, here is the setup for the battery shoot. White seamless in my garage, charger/subject sitting on a cake pan (don't tell my wife!). Key light was an SB-20 shooting through an umbrella quite close to the subject at camera left (to keep spill off the background. To further reduce spill on the background, I put the umbrella cover over the back side of the umbrella.

Background light (SB-20) through a red gel. In the image it is positioned in front camera right with a clothes gift box lid as a gobo to keep the red off the subject. Blue hair light which cross lights with the key at minimum power (1/16th). Looking at this image I think I should have restricted it a little bit to keep it off the background, but that caused only minimal problems in post.

The trickiest part of the shoot was getting the key at the right angle to illuminate the display. I'm still disappointed that I couldn't keep the display numbers from shadowing on the back of the display.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Many Ways to Photograph Obama

If you aren't looking at the Big Picture on a regular basis, what are you waiting for?

The newest Big Picture is all about The Next President of the United States (or Barack Obama, if you have been living under a rock). Thirty-five photos of one guy sounds pretty boring, but there are some real gems that can teach you about lighting, framing, and composition. My personal favorites are the one which uses the teleprompter mirrors creatively and the images in the rain (which gave me some great ideas, but I have to figure out how to get my kids to play in the sprinkler outside at night).

Monday, November 3, 2008

OT: California Proposition 8 and Ham

Absinthe's most recent post produces a good argument against CA Proposition 8 based on ham. I highly encourage you to read it if you live in California and plan to vote tomorrow.

(If you don't know Prop 8, the best way to start learning about it is the Prop 8 Wikipedia entry).

I'm generally not a political guy and I try to stay out of other people's faces about the things they care about. As a result, Prop 8 rubs me the wrong way, even so that I decided to post about it. I recommend voting No on Prop 8.

My wife and I spent about half a year in a domestic partnership, and as much as the proponents of Prop 8 would like you to believe that a couple in a domestic partnership has the same rights as a married couple, that is not the case. We were both very happy to make the marriage final because it meant we could stop jumping through many legal hoops.

From what I have heard, Prop 8 is on the edge of swinging towards yes so I'm trying to give my little nudge the other way. This thing could be decided by just a few votes and I'd hate for it to pass just because I didn't spend 10 minutes writing up a post.

As for my readers and friends who disagree, well, I believe everyone has a right to believe what they believe (hence my NO ON 8 absentee vote last week).

But I'll still like you even if you vote yes.

I'll still like you even if you tell me you voted yes.

And I'd be happy to have a conversation about why you voted yes or I voted no.

Just understand, as is the nature of these things, that neither of our minds will likely change.

Legal disclaimer: My opinions are mine alone, and don't extend to my wife (although she agrees), my employer, my other employer, my kids, pork and pork byproducts, or anyone/anything else you can sue me about.

Amusing anecdote: Immediately after posting this, there were ads supporting prop 8 in my Adsense slots between posts. So I removed them temporarily and requested that Adsense block those ads. A few hours later I get home to see them in my banners too! So now those are gone (temporarily). If that doesn't show you just how much certain religious entities are willing to spend to attack LGBT rights, nothing does.

Parting Shot: Of course, the opposition to Prop 8 has raised slightly more than that. Of course, who has more motivation here? The people who will lose rights or the people who want others to lose rights?

Last Thing: Wow, I should stay away from the politics in this space. At least this post is close enough to the election that I shouldn't get too much hate mail.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Microstock: October Summary

I really like the fact that Lee Torrens at Microstock Diaries shares all his earnings information with the general public. It really puts a lot of things in perspective to see real numbers and real performance comparisons.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are my results for the first two months. I've essentially earned a meal at In 'n Out for maybe 30-40 hours of work (yes, folks, that's a big 10c an hour). Blogger doesn't do tables very well so it takes a little creativity to read it. The first column is the number of images in my gallery at the end of the given month and the earnings are specified per month (not cumulative).

September 15 $0.00 11 $0.00 - -
October 20 $2.70 15 $2.31 12 $0.00

Total Earned to Date: $5.01

I sold two images at Dreamstime and three at Fotolia.

I won't lie; I'm realizing Microstock isn't really a huge moneymaker and it takes a LOT of time and work to achieve anything. Like many things, it is a hard way to make an easy living, and I don't foresee anyone but the top 1% of microstock contributors making enough to make a real living.

I'm not abandoning it yet, but I am going to focus on shooting specifically for microstock to see if I can get more sales for less images. The main complication for that is I can't use my kids for models and I don't want to pay pro models, so that doesn't leave me with much.

As long as it stays a fun hobby, I'll keep going, at least until I can get my first payout.

For November, my goal is to finish getting my archives online (which I think will result in 10-20 more images at each site) along with maybe one or two microstock specific non-model shoots. My income will be tiny and inconsistent and I would be unsurprised if I earned absolutely nothing.

Sonia Optical Trigger Problems

I've got a bunch of random things to post today, so stay tuned.

First up, an update to my Sonia Optical Trigger Review.

After plenty of time in the garage studio, I'm realizing my Sonia trigger doesn't seem to be syncing like I think it should. It works with direct, hard flash or large, very bright sources (like bounced from a pure white background), but it has trouble with diffused or small sources over distances of 4+ feet. This is quite a surprise to me since no one else has reported these problems, and I wonder if my peanut slave is faulty.

The problems were highlighted when I was trying to sync from my on-camera DIY ring flash (Sunpak 383) to a Chinese optical trigger (with eBay radio trigger on top) to a radio-triggered shoot-through umbrella to the Sonia trigger on an SB-20 as a background light. I know this sounds a little Rube Goldbergian but in theory it should work well. In practice, the ring flash triggers the radio trigger and the umbrella well, but the Sonia slave doesn't trigger. It DOES trigger if I manually fire the umbrella or if my ring flash is closer to the receiver (3 feet instead of 5 or 6). It is almost like multiple sources are causing the Sonia to not trigger.

Either way, I'm spending too much time messing with optical sync and not enough time shooting, so I'm definitely going to do something to address it. I'll post more when I learn more.

Update: After a little more experimentation, the problem is definitely from the multi-level triggering scheme I was using. I switched the the radio transmitter on the camera (instead of relaying it through the other optical trigger) and suddenly I was getting perfect triggering. So, somehow relaying the signal made things fail. I've got an idea of why (I suspect the slight delay from the optical trigger caused the Sonia trigger to lose edge detection) but for now I just need to avoid that situation and use the radio triggers to trip the flashes that feed the optical triggers. In other words, maybe my Sonia trigger isn't defective after all...