Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Frozen Beauty

Temperatures this morning are in the single digits here in Chicago. Looking out the front window of the house (which faces East) as the sun rose was showed just how pretty things could be in this time of year. It was a little tricky shooting with only a slow zoom and no tripod. I ended up using very slow shutter speeds (1/3 of a second) and ended up having to steady the camera against the window glass. In this situation the number of keepers will drop dramatically due to camera shake, but this isn't like shooting film, so shooting extras doesn't hurt. It also helps to focus on you technique to minimize camera shake: proper holding of the camera, controlling your breathing, and slowly pressing the shutter release.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dashing Through the Snow

After two days at the Kalahari Resort, it was off to Chicago. Unfortunately there is a major snow storm blowing in from the West, and the closer we got to Chicago, the worse the weather became. Fortunately the “salt shakers” (trucker lingo for a salt truck/snowplow) were out in full force. The Indiana Turnpike and the Illinois Tollroad (I294) were in excellent shape, but once we got off I294 conditions worsened. By the time we got to the subdivision my mother lives in, the streets hadn't been plowed at all. It didn't help that the suburbs Northwest of Chicago (Our destination) were the hardest hit by the snow. I managed to get our car up the long curvy driveway. When we awoke this morning, snow covered everything.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to All

I just want to wish everyone a safe and wonderful Christmas. My family and I are spending a couple of nights at the amazing Kalahari Resort in Sandusky Ohio on our way out to Chicago to visit my family. We actually won the trip in a contest a local TV station was having, so I have been tasked with taking photos of the trip to send to the station when we are done.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lemons from Lemonade

Driving is miserable. Snow and ice everywhere from the day before. It is Sunday morning and I have to take #1 son to religious school. After dropping him off, I planned to run some errands nearby, and then spend some time doing paperwork until class was over. Mother Nature had other ideas. I hadn't gone more than two blocks when I lost traction going up a hill that hadn't been salted. I ended up backing my car into a parking spot, so I could at least walk to get my errands taken care of. Fortunately I had brought a camera along, so I could turn this in to a photo opportunity, and got some nice shots of the snow in the trees.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Learning From Your Mistakes

There's an old saying that those you do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. There's another saying that states that a true professional realizes they do not "know it all" and never stops learning.

I'm sitting here waiting for the recovery software I use to finish scanning my memory card. I'm trying to recover from a real bonehead move. On Saturday I went for a walk in Frick Park with #2 Son. Took a bunch of nature shots. I set the camera down when I got home.

Two days later I grabbed the camera and a flash to take photos at #1 Son's birthday dinner. The frame counter indicated that the memory card was not empty, so without thinking I reformatted the card and headed to dinner. I only took three photos at dinner. After I got back, I realized what I had done.

Fortunately, I only lost one image from the first shooting, because the first shoot was shot in RAW plus JPEG, while the second shooting was done in JPEG only (which takes approximately one-third the space on the memory card). I fired up the image recover software I have (thew free package "PC-Inspector") and managed to recover everything else from the first shooting.

In my old job, this was known as "Lessons Learned". There was an actual process you had to go through, and you (or your boss) had to write a letter telling everyone why you screwed up, and how you were going to make sure it didn't happen again.

So, what should I have done differently?
  • Always dump the cards as soon as the "assignment" is over with. Doesn't matter whether you took 3 photos or 300, empty the card and have it ready at a moment's notice. While you are waiting for the images to download from your card, make sure that your camera settings are what you always use as your "standard" settings. If you have to shoot something quickly, you don't want to waste time double checking your camera settings.
  • After you dump the card (and have made at least one backup) reformat the card. That way you are ready to for the next time you need to shoot something.
  • If you pick up the camera and there are shots on the memory card, chimp the photos on the card before you reformat it. If you remember dumping those photos, go ahead and reformat. If you don't remember dumping them, leave the card next to your computer and grab an empty card to put in your camera.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Photo Illustration, Quick and Dirty

For the post I did on Friday on ExposureManager coupons, I decided after I started that some sort of photo illustration would be a nice addition. I quickly had an idea of what I wanted, a graphic shot with coupons arranged on top of a keyboard. Then I hit myself with a ton of questions as I tried to figure out the details:
  • Which lens to use? I don't have a macro lens. My 35-70 and 70-210 both have a macro feature, would that suffice? Might I be better off trying my non-macro 18-70 or 85?
  • Do I need to put the camera on a tripod?
  • How should I light it? Available light? One flash or two? Direct flash, diffusers, typing paper light tent, or umbrellas? Do I need to set up my lightstands? Do I need a lighting diagram?
  • Do I need a small table for the laptop, so I can position the lights and tripod around it? Maybe put the laptop on the floor? Do I use my new laptop (black keys) or my old laptop that #2 son inherited (light gray keys)?
I suddenly realized that I was pacing around the house, weighing the differenet options in my head. A lot of back-and-forth, trying to decide the best way to do this. The problem was, the picture weasn't getting done! I suddenly realized that I was suffering from a classic case of paralysis by analysis. Unfortunately it is something that happens to me too often. Instead of spending so much time thinking about the shoot, I needed to just start shooting!

Having given myself a mental kick-in-the-pants, I decided to go with simple and quick, which is my preferred mode of operation. I grabbed some coupons from the kitchen and put them on my keyboard. Put the 35-70 on my camera and put it in macro mode. Set the camera for F11. Hooked up my SB800 (with the diffuser dome) in TTL mode with an SC17 cable. Held the camera in one hand and the flash in the other, with the cable running over the back of my neck. I focused by moving the camera up and down until the focus indicator lit up. Seriously, it doesn't get any more "quick-and-dirty" than that, and it definitely isn't the sort of thing you would want to show in an instructional video.

But it worked... Surprising well, actually. I chimped the first shot, and found I had the right amount of magnification, the image was sharp, and the exposure was on the mark. So from a technical standpoint, I was all set. All I needed to do was play around with my composition (I didn't want to show the product names on the coupons) and the lighting angle. I ended up resting my hand with the flash against the top of my laptop screen. After a total of 9 shots, I had what I needed.

When you read posts from pros like David Hobby, Chase Jarvis, and so on, you get the impression that "the right way" is to plan everything out, and know what you're going to get before you even snap the shutter. That is certainly a valid approach, but you need to do what works best for you. And there is nothing wrong with trial-and-error. Chimping is one of the huge advantages of digital photography: shooting can be an iterative process. Converge towards a solution. Better to get started, shoot something quick, and then review it and adjust accordingly.

Friday, December 11, 2009

ExposureManager Tip: My Coupon's not Working!

This time of year, a lot of photographers are using coupons to encourage sales for the holidays. But if you haven't used coupons before, there are some pitfalls you should be aware of:

Coupon not enabled for the gallery: Some photographers seem to think that if they set up a coupon (or any discount, for that matter) in a pricesheet, it is automatically applicable to any gallery using that pricesheet. That isn't the case. You need to go to the gallery selection screen for the coupon and pick the galleries you want the coupon to work for. Make sure you use the "Inherit" box to tag all the subgalleries, and then click on the names of the parent galleries (the ones with the asterisk next to them) to verify that all the subgalleries are tagged the way you want.

Gallery uses a different pricesheet than the coupon: Just because you can select any gallery for the coupon , doesn't mean that the coupon will automatically work when someone orders from that gallery. The gallery also has to use the same pricesheet that contains the coupon. This is necessary because the products in each pricesheet are considered unique. A 4x6 in your "Sports" pricesheet and a 4x6 in your "Wedding" pricesheet are two totally different products, at least as far as ExposureManager is concerned. So a coupon set up to work with one pricesheet's products will not work for the products in another pricesheet. There is a work-around of sorts for this issue: if you do not check any products for the coupon, then the coupon will apply to all products, regardless of which pricesheet they are on.

Coupon set up outside of a pricesheet: This is a variation on the different pricesheet problem. Some long-time ExposureManager customers still have access to the coupon interface from prior to the introduction of pricesheets. They think that they can set up a coupon using that interface and have it apply to all their galleries, even those using pricesheets. This has the same problem as using a different pricesheet: the non-pricesheet products are separate and different from those in the pricesheets, and if specific products are selected for the coupon, it won't work.

Coupon conflicting with other discounts: Only one discount can be applied to any one item in an order. In addition, coupons have the lowest priority, because the coupon code gets entered after the other discounts have been applied. This is a particular problem with volume discounts, which tend to be applied to an entire order. So if you decide to offer a 15% off volume discount for the holidays, your customers will suddenly find that their coupons no longer work.

Multiple coupons with the same code: Some photographers think they can get around the different pricesheet issue by setting up the same coupon code in all of their pricesheets. Their logic is that the coupon code should then work regardless of which gallery and which pricesheet the customer is using. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. When the system finds a matching coupon code, it then checks if it is applicable to the products being ordered. If the coupon doesn't apply, the system doesn't check the rest of the coupon codes to find another match. You should always make your coupon codes unique to avoid a problem.

Expiration date: There's always someone who will be trying to order at 11:55 pm on the last day the coupon is good for. And the coupon isn't going to work for them... When you set the expiration date for a coupon, the coupon expires at 12:01 AM Pacific Time on the expiration date. So if you're on the East Coast, the coupon will be good until 3 AM. That is why ExposureManager recommends setting the expiration date to one day later than the date you advertise to your customers.

Finally, one of the things ExposureManager can't stress enough: TEST YOUR COUPONS AND DISCOUNTS. And not just for a simple, minimum order, case. Try to come up with an extreme example (like a $900 order, or 30 copies of one print) and make sure things work the way you want them to.

EDIT: Added the item about coupons conflicting with other discounts

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Photos with Santa

This past Saturday, I photographed the children's holiday party held by my former employer. It dawned on me as I was shooting that I first did this over 25 years ago. Which means that some of the kids I photographed then are bringing their own kids now. That first year was crazy. Everyone was going to get a free 4x6 in the company mail, so I had assistants taking everyone's name down, hoping that we kept everything in order so people got the correct photo. Santa was sitting in one corner of the hall, and the line to see him stretched all the way around all four sides After I got the photos (over 200 photos) back, I had to sort them and put then in envelopes for printing. There was a lot of manual effort involved. I did the holiday photos on and off for a few years after that, finally settling in to doing it officially about 15 years ago. 2004 was the first year I shot it digitally, although we still printed them, and optionally emailed them to people.

Now things are simpler and more organized. Parents are given a number when they arrive at the party, and the numbers are called in blocks of 10 to minimize the time families wait in line. I post the photos in a gallery on ExposureManager, and people can download a 4x6 file (1200x1800 pixels) and also have the option of ordering prints. There's no need to track people's names any more, since they can find their own photos in the online gallery. Definitely a lot easier than it used to be.

I keep my setup quick, easy, and flexible. I need to be able to quickly go from a large group of 10 people with Santa to a closeup of a newborn sleeping in Santa's arms. I use my 18-70 Nikkor Zoom to give me the range I need. For lighting I use a Stroboframe flash bracket with an SB800 flash using the supplied diffuser. I have an SB600 on a stand (hidden behind the Christmas tree)aimed at the ceiling to giver some separation.

Pictured above are my two assistants for the day, Deanna and Shelby, thanking Santa for his help :)