A good, solid beginner's book about photographic lighting.

I'm a sucker for good lighting books and I hate poorly done lighting books.  One of my favorites is nearly all theory. It's called Light, Science and Magic, and every photographer deserves to have a copy on his or her book shelf. In the last four years the marketplace for lighting books has been flooded by a torrent of books; some good and some beyond mediocre. But a good, hands-on, intro book is a nice thing to have. Syl Arena's has written a nice, small book for people who are just now getting ready to stick their toes into the water of photographic lighting as it exists beyond the little, nasty flash that's built into your camera. He's written a book that will help you take your first steps toward working at photography independent of existing light.

The book is published by the same group that published Nicole S. Young's book about food, Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots, that I reviewed about a month ago so I expected to find the book very richly illustrated with example photos. The book is NOT aimed at people who've been through all of the Strobist.com routine and it's not aimed at professionals out to improve their technique and their understanding of lighting but it IS aimed squarely at someone who might have picked up a camera, gotten bitten by the the enthusiasm bug of photography and is now ready to add a flash and get started figuring out how to use one, two and three flashes off their camera. 

The book discusses the quality of light, color temperatures, the direction of light and all the relevant basics. He then goes on to teach the rudiments of lighting a portrait, working with flashes outside in the sunlight and how to trigger everything. I was first exposed to Syl Arena's writing when he came out with his first book, Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlights. I bought that book because I was using Canon flashes and I wanted to make sure I knew all the tricks, shortcuts and operational nuances of the brand. What I found in that book was a very meaty and in-depth "how to" book that was fairly well written and quite comprehensive. I loaned the book to a long time Canon "pro" photographer and have never been successful in getting it back. But I remember that it was quite useful to me.

When Syl came out with the latest book, priced at under $15 in paperback, I was intrigued enough to buy it. I wanted to see how different it would be from my first two books. Well, not much has really changed in lighting but the gear continues to evolve and Syl does a good job incorporating the latest triggers, flashes and techniques into the book.

If it sounds like I'm hedging on giving it a full recommendation, I am not. It's just that so many people who read VSL daily have advanced beyond the need for an introductory book. And I don't want anyone to think that this is a lighting revelation of biblical proportions. If you haven't messed with light and you are interested in getting up to speed with battery powered flashes then this book has my hearty and enthusiastic recommendation. The writing is informal and flows well, the information is rock solid and the example photographs clearly illustrate his points.

If you just bought your Profoto flash system upgrade to the Alien Bees you've been using for a few years you probably won't get as much out of it. But that's just the variable nature of experience in photography.

If you do decide to buy it go for the paper back version. It's not much more money than the e-book and I think basic books are great in paper because you can take them anywhere you go and whip through them to the parts you need now. Besides, we might be the last generation that has the choice of buying on paper. 

Just thought you'd like to know about this one. I read it in my hotel room in Abilene and it kept me interested enough to stay away from HBO and CNN...

Nex 7. Travel camera.

I'm back from Abilene, Texas with a few observations about gear. I worked with my Sony a77 cameras but I toured with my Nex 7 camera. In the next few days I'll see if I can get permission from my client to post some of the advertising images we created on Halloween day (the images had nothing to do with Halloween....) but for now I'm posting just three random snap shots that I took in between the "working" photography.

Abilene, Texas was a surprise to me. I expected a run down Texas town and I found a vibrant and well maintained city that bubbled with art and restoration. The cultural high point of my working visit to the city was, emphatically, the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature in the center of downtown. The current show is work by the illustrator, Raúl Colón, and it was amazing. His illustrations, largely for children's books were a revelation for me. I'd seen his work before in print but when you can see the large originals you can really see the genius of the work. It's a show worth driving four hours to see.  The show right before the Colón show was the original art for the Dr. Suess book, The Lorax. 

The other treat for me was the ongoing reveal of really wonderful, old brick buildings that had been languishing under a 1970's, misguided application of industrial stucco. Many of the downtown buildings are in the west Texas style, above.

We did five advertising shots yesterday and for each of them I used the Sony a77 cameras, Sony lenses and the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS flash system with two heads. My "go to" lens for the Sony cameras is the 16-50mm f2.8. The more I use it the more impressed I am with it. For work related material I shoot in raw and then use the correction profiles in Lightroom or camera raw. Once corrected the images are almost perfectly rectilinear and very detailed.  Since I was able (actually wanted) to light everything I shot for the job I was able to leave the fast but heavy 70-200mm 2.8 lens at home and make due with the slower but equally sharp (and dirt cheap) Sony 55-200 DT lens. I also packed three primes, all Sony lenses: the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm's. I used the 50 inside the fuselage of a stripped jet but the other single focal length lenses stayed in the bag.

All the commercial shots were done in RAW and for the most part I just left the camera in the manual focus mode and blew up the preview images to fine focus.  All but one of the shots were done locked down on a sturdy tripod. I even brought along two sandbags for the exterior lighting set ups.

But the camera I enjoyed using the most throughout the day was the Nex7 with the silver bodied 50mm f1.8 DT lens on the front. In fact, I am so happy with the fifty that I didn't bother to bring along any other Nex lenses, nor did I bring an adapter that would have allowed me to use the DT lenses. If an image didn't work at my short telephoto point of view I just ignored the scene and walked on to the next bright, shiny scene that caught my eye.

I have found one situation in which the EVF of the Sony a77 is not optimal and I'll share it with you in case you find yourself in a similar situation. One of our shots for the project was to photograph four people positioned around the end of a conference table just in front of two huge, beautiful windows. We needed to light the interior for a group shot but the art director and I also wanted to be able to get a good exposure on  the old brick buildings we could see through the windows,  just across the street. They were in full sunlight. At ISO 100 the best exposure for the buildings was 1/250th of a second f7.1.  I knew I wouldn't have a problem getting the same exposure with the Elinchrom Ranger flash but the ambient light in the conference room was down around 1/8th of  second at f7.1 (at 100 ISO).  

If I set the camera at the correct shooting exposure (1/250th at f7.1) the scene in the finder showed the detail out of the windows correctly but the interior of the conference room was totally dark. My four subjects were nothing more than silhouettes. Yikes! That's a tough focusing and comping situation.

To make it work I used the lower light exposure setting (1/8th second, f7.1) to comp the scene and to fine focus. The group was stationary so I really didn't worry about them moving out of focus. Once I had the scene comped I switched to the daylight exposure and stopped looking through the camera (or at the LDC) and, instead, just looked directly at the subjects as I shot. I knew from seeing the image review that we nailed everything but it is different than using an optical finder wherein your eye could automatically compensate for the brightness difference. This is a restriction of the electronic viewing technology that will not be easily solved. It's the same when doing dusk shots outdoors with flash. The workaround is to switch back and forth between the exposure settings until you are certain you have everything nailed down and then lock into the shooting exposure and go forward. Again, not optimal but the only real drawback I've found in my extensive use of the EVFs.

The battery life for both the Nex7 and the a77 cameras keeps increasing. It may be that the batteries need to be broken in and perhaps that happens over time. Another answer may be that I've streamlined the way I use the cameras and have become more efficient in the way I use the cameras. I got nearly 800 exposures from one  battery in the a77 I used for all the shooting and I'm still working off the same battery I put in the Nex 7 nearly a week ago (about 650 exposures).

I didn't run into any other photographers or people toting cameras during my short stay in Abilene but, of course, plenty of people were toting iPhones and Android phones and snapping documentation with them. No one mentioned or asked about my choice of commercial or recreational cameras at all.

If someone is looking for a nice, west Texas town in order to sample the modern, small city, Texas lifestyle I'll be quick to recommend Abilene. Here are the things I liked best about the city:

1. Everyone I met was warm, welcoming and non-pretentious (no extraneous hipsters).

2. There is no car traffic of which to speak.  Yes, people were driving around in cars but even during rush hour there was no grid lock, no long lines, no crowded intersections. Austin is the 7th worse city in the USA for traffic and lost productivity due to traffic. What a wonderful alternate universe four hours to the north....

3. There is a community focus on the arts; especially the visual arts. 

4. A small number of chain restaurants for city the size of Abilene and a wealth of well done and well loved local eateries. Every place I tried had the combination I like: Good food and good, friendly service.

5. I like the restoration of old buildings all over the downtown area.

6. And I like this sculpture of the horse with red eyes.......just because I do.

The two days I spent in Abilene were productive and without stress. The drive back through the hill country was sweet. And the cherry on the ice cream sundae that this assignment represented was the ability to switch back and forth through the shooting day between my "work" cameras and my "play" camera. The play camera wins hands down. It's just the right everything. More to come.

Anybody out there from San Angelo? That's my next foray. I've heard great stuff about the art's community there and I want to head up and check it out. Might even convince Belinda to go with me. Go west Texas!!!