Monthly Archives: December 2009

Family photos, pocket wizards, and how I suck with Flash.

Yes, it is that time of year during the holidays, where families get together to celebrate health, and happiness, and to be merry and festive . Usually when families get together, they take a lot of pictures to commemorate the moment. And what generally occurs is the ‘family picture’. To which I kindly stepped up and offered my services. (In truth, my mom said, “Ohhh Nghia will do it”). So technically, it’s not like I had a choice to begin with! But that’s fine, I really wanted to give it a shot. I generally deal with families or groups of people during wedding photography all the time. What makes this one unique is, I have to actually be in the picture. Since the camera will be on a timer and I won’t be able to see anything, I have no control over who is actually looking at the camera or not, so it’s a whole different ball game.

Now when taking large groups of people, I think of it as a cookbook recipe. The variables are ‘how many people are we talking about, and what the environment will be).
I know my family size, roughly 12-13 people. Take into the account that some people won’t show up, I estimated around 10-11 people in a small living space full of clutter. (yes, my parents like to have clutter, so I won’t be nit picky about what junk gets into the picture, as it will be out of my control). Given those parameters, I got my check list:

1) 5D camera for the full frame effect
2) A 24-70 lens. One of the widest I have without major distortion.
3) tripod (no tripod means I can’t be in the picture)
4) Two flashes (not sure if one can get the entire group of people
5) My stupid pocket wizards which I purchased but never really had a chance to use

Now before I begin, let me put a disclaimer. Pocket Wizards are a great company that puts out great products. It is due to my inexperience that I call them sucky. =) I’m sure given time when I master how to use them properly, I’ll change my statement.

Ok, so let me back up. This whole post was originally intended to describe my experience trying to take a group photo for Christmas. A little background about flash photography. There are two ways you can use a flash: The automatic way, whether it be Nikon’s i-TTL or Canon’s E-TTL technology, or the manual way. Up to this point, I’ve been babied and have used the automatic way. Which is to say, when you aim the camera, and shoot the picture. Really smart little math wizard gnomes in the your camera use special binoculars to determine how far the distance to subject is. They do the calculations and make a phone call to the light/intensity adjusting elves that live in your flash, and tell them to properly change the output of the flash to get a proper exposure. Granted, sometimes the gnomes have been drinking or they get confused, so you have to manually tell them to adjust plus or minus the output given any situation (called flash exposure compensation). But other than that, these genius gnomes run the show when it comes to flash photography.

Switching it to manual mode, would be the equivalent of telling those gnomes and elves to bug off. They’re all fired, and Christmas is canceled for them! Keep in mind, these gnomes and elves were born and bred for one sole purpose….and that is to adjust the light output based on gazillions of algorithms, and you just told them they’re fired. You can see where this story is going.

I thought I was somewhat experienced in all things photography, and in my hubris, I told those gnomes to pick up their pink slips and head to the unemployment line. In employing Pocket wizards, I essentially did just that. They are radio triggers, that tell the flash to just fire. The one advantage of this would be that I can tell a flash to fire in the next room if need be. If you are using multiple flashes, the way flash systems work is they either use pre-programed pulses that tell the other flashes to fire. Or they use a semi line of site laser-ish line of site trigger. The one problem with this is if it’s blocked for any reason, the other flashes won’t trigger (yes this has happened to me in the field before, and it’s very frustrating). The disadvantage is you lose the smart gnomes. I told myself I’d invest in these pocket wizards one of these days. Whelp! That day has arrived!

When the gnomes were fired, the moment you tell the camera to fire off the flash, it does so at full blast. Let me tell you, it isn’t a pleasant sight. It’s as if the sun exploded right in your living room (For a fraction of a second, the room lit up so bright, I think all the camera literally took was white). I immediately barked orders to my little gnomes to lower their output, via the camera. Then I realized…Oh wait… I fired them all! So I literally had to walk up to each of my flashes and dialed down their intensity, and take multiple test shots. Positioning the flashes in dark corners makes this feat a bit tiresome. I had the bright idea of adding a catch light by placing the flash behind the couch. But this meant that any adjustments I needed to make would require me to reach down there to change it (so there goes that idea). I ended up placing the flashes directly beside me. One to the left, and one to the right. Both I think firing at 1/128 capacity and one firing at 1/64th capacity. But with flash photography, nothing is a fixed variable. The moment people move, or get added or subtracted, the moment you move the camera back further or change the shutter speed or aperture. All those variables had to be calculated and adjusted. Even when the gnomes were employed, it still required some human input in adjusting the output. But in full manual, boy did I feel really inadequate.

So the long and short of the story is, I backed out and re-hired my automatic E-TTL gnomes for the shot. I didn’t feel comfortable in my experience or abilities to do a full manual shoot, especially when it came to an important family photo. And as with all photos that require group dynamics, you only have a ‘small’ window of opportunity before they get restless. So I un-cancelled Christmas for them and went for TTL shot of the flashes. The resulting picture is below. Unfortunately the flash I placed to my left made a shadow on the wall, this could of been mitigated if I angled it differently, or if I used a third flash in the rear to offset the shadows. However, like I said in my previous statement. When a group of people are together, their patience in starring and smiling at the camera is very limited, so rule #3 of photography. “It is what it is, and sometimes you just have to live with what you shot”.

I set the camera at F5.6, there were only two rows of people so I figured it would give me enough deph of field at that distance to get a sharp group shot. Generally with a group of people, a common question I get is…What do I aim at? Well if your aperture is set enough where it will cover the entire group, it doesn’t matter if you aim it at the person in front center, or the person in the rear center. They both should come out sharp. If I set it at lower apertures, say 2.8 or so, and the camera was closer, if I aimed it at the front main person, the rear row will be slightly blurry, and vice versa. So with that said, I calculated F5.6 would be sufficient, however humans are very error prone. Instead of losing more light and going to F8.0, I played it safe and aimed the focus point directly at my dad. He was the most important person in the shot, and if anything I want him coming out sharp.

The end result is below:
Don’t ask me why I didn’t move that stupid table in the middle of the room. Don’t ask me why there’s a huge shadow from the lamp to the left. Next time, I’ll try to do better.


As another disclaimer…you can purchase pocket wizards with gnomes. But they cost a heck of a lot more than the $500 I’ve already spent. So I couldn’t afford them =(


holiday vaca and doing absolutely nothing

Ahhh…for once, I think it feels good to do absolutely nothing. I’ve taken the rest of the year off of work, so I’ve spent the past feel days just unwinding, and doing absolutely nothing. I’ve been catching up on some video games, doing a little reading, and watching some movies. Recently, I’ve watched Julia & Julia. It was my wife’s choice and at first I really wasn’t interested in it, but the movie grew on me. It was actually the first time I really took note of the cinematography. Not the landscapes, or anything, but particularly, the lighting.

Maybe it’s because most of the movies out there try to be dark and brooding for anyone to notice. Julie & Julia was was very well lit, and I’ve noticed it in a lot of scenes. To the point where I literally just stare at it in awe and fascination. Mostly what goes in my head during such scenes is, “Wow, this scene is very well lit!” or “whoa, that looks like a really nice photo, how did they light it that way?” The only way I can describe it is, it’s like a photography done very well from a technical point of view. Not necessarily the composition or the photo, but just the lighting of the faces or the clothes. I’m not sure if it’s just the combination of dynamic range and lighting, spurred on by the digital age where these things just couldn’t be done with traditional film? I don’t even have any idea how this particular film was shot (whether they used digital cameras or not), so I’m not even going to pretend to venture into that area, but it is my understanding that a traditional film is shot basically by cameras that must follow the same rules of lighting as regular 35mm film. The director of photography has to deal with the same lighting hassles, the same fstops and film speed, grain, etc. Only his/her job is exacerbated by the fact that people and things are constantly in motion in the scene. So kudos to them, and kudos to the fine technical work they’ve done. It actually almost inspired me to go out and take pictures again. Note the word ‘almost’. Heh, it’s waay to cold outside, and I’m still enjoying my ‘doing nothing’ moments. =)

On a different topic, my mom is throwing a holiday party in two days, so I’m looking forward to taking pictures (mostly of my dad), but it will be an opportunity for the family to get together and I guess I’ll whip out the good ole tripod to do family photos. Merry Christmas everyone!


stats and babies, oh my!

Woo, as of today 12-12-09, my flickr account has had 243,518 views. Not much in the whole scheme of things, but it’s big numbers to me!

Nothing much has been going on as of late. I’ve been uber busy with work. I called my dad today to wish him well. The conversation went something like this:
(translated to English from Vietnamese of course)

me: “Hi dad, how are you feeling?”
dad: “I’m good”
me: “I miss you, sorry I’ve been busy haven’t had a chance to see you”
dad: “You miss me? where do you put it when you miss me”
me: “In my heart of course!”
dad: (laughs) “good good”.

That was pretty much it, I wanted to be sure he was still following his exercise and therapy regime. He is still under 125lbs (56.7kilos) so the Dr refuses to do chemotherapy on him. So we’re waiting of him to gain some weight. He’s been given medicine to boost up his appetite.

So work was busy, but I’m glad I had time to take pics of a very cute baby “Paloma”, her parents visited from Spain these past weeks and booked a photo session. Initially it was postponed due to rain, but the Sat that we did it had some very cold weather. But I think we made it through ok.


I’m a sucker for dad photos with their kids. Fernando was carrying Paloma towards the photo site, and I pretty much walked beside them and grabbed this shot.




The shoot went on schedule at around the 1hr mark. Babies attention spans usually wear thin if you go any any further. Traditionally, I like to use natural lighting for the shoots. Flashes are distracting to the babies, and I doubt any good for their young eyes. I think at one point I had this teddy bear on top of my lens, just to try to get Paloma to laugh.

She didn’t fall for it, but I think the teddy bear did make my gigantoid camera look less menacing.


I think shooting young tots is akin to shooting pets. They’re very very unpredictable, and you can’t get any expression out of then. Since it’s so random, you pretty much have to have the camera on ready at all times. Or else you’ll miss a look or an expression that will occur only for a brief second, and it will be too late to capture it.

Also I think with kids, since they cry 60% of the time, it’s good to capture those moments as well. Because everyone has pictures of themselves as a kid smiling or looking cute, it’s the natural moments in life, where they’re crying or needing and wanting attention. Now that’s real life, and that’s what parents will cherish the most when they’re all grown up and eschewing their parents. Wanting to be dropped off a block away from school because they don’t want to be seen being taken to school by their mum or dad.

I remember I used to be very nervous the day before. I used to lose sleep over them, going through in my head in meticulous detail what shots I wanted, and how I intended to get them. I quickly realized things you plan very rarely works out in reality. So now I approach them like I would be any other day at work.

I analyze the environment, pick out the best spot given the conditions and just let things just happen. If need be, I’ll nudge things along. “try standing here, try standing there, lets do this”. The only pre-planning would be what camera and lenses to bring the day before. With short shoots, bringing too much equipment is a real burden. So I stuck with a simple two camera, 3 lens approach. I knew it would be outdoors, so a 70-200 for family portraits, and the rest would be closeup of the babies. (35mm, and 85mm)


“Mother is the name of God on the lips and hearts of all children.”

-The Crow