Wednesday, February 27, 2013

David Wilcox scores big in show
for Indy Acoustic Cafe Series

Until last Saturday, it had been almost 10 months since I'd attended a concert in the long-running Indy Acoustic Cafe Series. I'd missed all the shows in the fall portion of the current season, and because series coordinator Mark Butterfield was bringing back David Wilcox this month -- Wilcox's first visit to the series in three years -- I decided to try and make it.

Wilcox delivered a great show to a sellout audience at the Wheeler Arts Community in Fountain Square, offering a mix of fun, quirky and serious tunes that had the audience warming to him increasingly with each song. It helped that he set up many of the songs with back stories, and many of the anecdotes were laced with life-experience humor.

He introduced one of those songs -- a serious reflection on fatherhood based on his relationship with his own father -- with a humorous story involving his then-very-young son Nate (now a college student) and the boy's fascination with a toy light saber. Wilcox animated Nate's motions, using his forearm to slice the air, delighting the crowd (see second and third pictures below).

In one of his promotional emails before the show, Butterfield had said this would be Wilcox's last visit to the series. He didn't explain how he knew that, or if Wilcox had told him he wouldn't be back, but after Saturday's show, I don't see how Wilcox could avoid Indy in the future unless he simply stops doing tours.

A full gallery of pictures from the show can be found at my SmugMug site.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Better luck on 2nd try with Graslon

In my last post, I went into great detail to recall the experience I had with my inaugural use of recently purchased Graslon Prodigy on-camera light diffusers. Since then, I had a second chance to shoot the Garfield Shakespeare Company at another rehearsal for its spring production of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker," and I again turned to the Graslon Prodigy -- the flat attachment (Graslon also makes a rounded, dome attachment for the Prodigy) -- for my lighting help.

This time, it was a good-news, good-news experience. Not only was I again pleased with the lighting the Prodigy gave me, but I made a point to be deliberate in the way I attached the diffuser to the flash head, a Canon 580EX II. This time, it attached firmly, and remained so for the duration of the shoot; it was snug, and at no time did I ever feel as if the device would not stay secure.

Curiously, after the second shoot, I received an email from a representative of Graslon, who had seen my previous blog post. It was a very impressive reach-out; the rep expressed disappointment that the modifier didn't attach properly for me, acknowledged that perhaps Graslon should have done a better job explaining how the mounting process should be handled, then explained that proper process to me.

As I told the Graslon rep in my email reply, I'm certain I had tried the "proper" mounting sequence -- albeit by dumb luck on my part -- in my inaugural outing. But I also admitted that in my frustration, it's very likely I slopped through it and moved on to -- and settled upon -- another method. Ironically, on the second shoot (again, before hearing from the Graslon rep), the process I used successfully was different from the one the rep described to me as the proper one.

In any event, I salute Graslon for reaching out, and I do feel better about that aspect of the device. Most importantly, I really do like the light it delivers. My camera settings for the second shoot of play rehearsal were the same as the first -- Canon 7D manual mode, 1/160, f/3.2, ISO-800; and the 580EX II in manual, 24mm zoom and 1/32 intensity.

I neglected to mention in my first post that in addition to the white-colored attachments, Graslon sells amber-tinted domes and flats for photographers to use when they want their light source to match tungsten ambient light.

In the photo leading off the post, "The Matchmaker" cast members Chris Burton (left) and Tony Van Pelt. For a full gallery of images from my shoot of the the play's dress rehearsal, visit my site at

Above: Laura Kelley

Above, L-R: Mike Merrick, Monica Verdouw and Katie Schneider

Above, L-R: Laura Madden, Alexis Brown and Gan Baker.

Above: Katie Schneider (left) and Lara Martinez

Above: Laura Madden and Robert Routier

Above: Chris Burton

Above, L-R: Katie Schneider, Tony Van Pelt II and Chris Burton

Above: Monica Verdouw and Katie Schneider

 Above, L-R: Chris Burton, Mike Merrick, Alexis Brown

Above: Jonathan Kratzner

Above, L-R: Alexis Brown, Gan Baker and Chris Burton

Above: Gan Baker

Friday, February 8, 2013

The good and not-so-good about
Graslon flash unit light diffusers

When photographers have the time to set up lighting to take pictures using artificial light (i.e., flash and strobes), such as they do in portraits, it usually leads to pro-quality images. Photographers have great control of lighting in such situations.

But when artificial light is needed and the subject is not able to sit still (pretty much all other circumstances besides portraiture), photographers ordinarily have to attach their flash to the camera for convenience, but they usually struggle to find the right modifiers to deliver the illumination they want without introducing harsh shadows and that bright, "headlight-in-face" look that comes with unmodified on-camera or built-in flash.

I've tried a bevy of options to deal with that. A good one is bouncing the flash, but that's effective only if you're someplace where you can bounce the light off a light-colored wall or low ceiling. There also are on-flash modifiers -- a small softbox, translucent flash-head caps (e.g., Omni Bounce) and even metal brackets to get the flash unit off and above the camera. In the case of a camera's built-in flash, there's the Gary Fong Puffer. Each of those has helped get me close to what I've wanted to achieve, but each also has its limitations, and almost every one -- on occasion -- still will allow a little too much harsh, direct light on the subject.

So I was immediately intrigued by the technology used for the Graslon Prodigy, Insight and Spark flash diffusers when I read about them about a year and a half ago. From the images I studied with the stories and reviews about the Graslon products, I liked how they helped soften light, reduce the likelihood of red-eye and still gave subjects the flattering illumination I sought. I was getting a bit of that already with a small softbox attachment, but there were still instances when even that wasn't cutting it.

Two things contributed to me holding off on a decision to buy any of these -- price and the mechanism used to affix the diffusers to the flash heads. I relented early on and bought the Spark, which was designed for the pop-up flash. The price -- $35 -- was the least expensive of the three, and its attachment mechanism looked relatively safe; it slides on to the camera's hot shoe. Indeed, it has been safe, and pretty effective. I've like what it's done, but I have no control over the light intensity, and that's an issue with pop-up, with or without diffusers.

So in pursuit of the same kind of result with the two Graslon diffusers designed for flash units, the Prodigy and Insight, I continued to study reviews. The technology is commendable; the diffusers are built with a mirror system consisting of strong plastic that help bounce much of the light throughout the device then out through the top, bottom and sides, while the exterior facade allows a very small amount of direct light to escape through tiny holes.

The Prodigy is larger (8x5x3") than the Insight (6x4x3"); both are made with two interchangeable attachments, although the $90 and $63 price tags, respectively, get you only the base unit and one attachment. If you pay for one unit and an attachment, you can purchase the second attachment for about a third of the price of the full unit. One attachment is a rounded dome for use where bounce opportunities exist. The other, flat surface attachment is for when there are no walls or low ceilings to bounce light off -- outdoors, in a huge hall or where there are tall ceilings.

So you can understand the cost issue. (I found it odd that two reviewers thought the price for these was nominal and quite reasonable; another reviewer felt as I did, that they are pricey).

What bothered me more was the other issue -- the less than enthusiastic responses from buyers who bought one or the other and were not pleased with the device's ability to remain firmly attached to the flash head. (Although two reviewers claim to have had no trouble with that.)

Despite both concerns, I did take the plunge finally, and bought the Prodigy -- both the dome and flat attachments -- and discovered immediately what those users were talking about. The device uses a circular bracket through which you insert the head of your flash unit so it fits snug against the hardware. Once snug, you're supposed to be able to tighten the bracket with the plastic thumb nuts around the bracket then further secure it by tightening a Velcro cinch that surrounds the bracket. I had to try the process four or five times on my maiden use before I felt the snugness I needed to ensure the diffuser would not fall off without warning.

And I didn't get it as secure as I wanted on the first try the next time I went to use it, either. Personally, I think Graslon shortchanged customers on the quality or design concept for the mechanism to secure diffuser to flash, and for $90 and $63, that shouldn't have happened. And yes, the unit did separate from the flash head on its own once on my first use. Fortunately, it came as I was placing the camera and flash on a cushioned chair -- gravity apparently pulled on it -- so no harm done. Reviewers claim that the dominant plastic used in the mechanism is so strong that the Graslons wouldn't damage if they are dropped. I hope not.

One other note, as some of the other reviewers have noted, the larger, heavier Prodigy unit tends to be more likely to loosen or fall then the lighter Insight. But the reason I went with the larger Prodigy is because the larger and closer the light source, the softer your light will be, and that's what I wanted. Currently, Graslon offers no bag or other portable carrier to tote the modifiers, although reviewers I read say Graslon is working on such an accessory. The Prodigy, especially, is too large to fit in most camera bags without taking up most of the space. So finding storage is an issue for this (I simply kept mine on the camera to and from the shoot Thursday).

That being said ... when the diffuser is on the flash and you're using it, the light is very nice. I would even go so far to say that it has given me the best lighting on my subjects of any modifier I've used on a flash attached to the camera. I used it to take the photographs you see in this post, which was from a shoot last week during a practice of the Garfield Shakespeare Company's spring play, Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker."

Leading off the post is a shot featuring actresses Laura Kelley (left) and Katie Schneider, an image in which I was impressed by the quality of even light striking both cast members. That's Katie again in the first picture below, with Monica Verdouw in the background.

I used manual settings on the camera (Canon 7D) and 580EX II Speedlite. For the camera, I had my settings at f/3.2, 1/100, ISO-800; the higher ISO setting allowed me to get some decent ambient light onto objects in the backgrounds, something I wasn't getting with test shots at ISO-100. The Speedlite was set at 24mm zoom, Manual mode and a light intensity of 1/32.

Above: The light was just enough to amply illuminate Justin Monts, who is looking at a park bench in the distance during this scene of the play. 

Above and next two below: These costumed, non-book shots were taken to use for the selections to pick formal publicity photos for the show. They feature Laura Kelley, in the role of professional matchmaker Dolly Levi, and Jonathan Kratzner, in the role of wealthy merchant and widower Horace Vandergelder.  

Above: Kelley again; this time I'm testing the distribution of light from low angle. I think it did well.

Above and below: I wanted some shots without flash -- at available light -- to contrast what I would get with flash, so I took these. I looked for opportunities when cast members were in direct lights from the overhead beams illuminating wall art in the gallery hall. I pushed the ISO to 3200 for these two shots and used no noise filter in post-processing. The 7D's noise suppression at such high ISOs is something I really like about the camera.

Above: Katie's hair is tended to by the theater company's head costumer Bradley Jones. Seated next to Katie is cast member Mike Merrick. 

Above: Assistant director Chris Burton also is playing the role of Malachi Stack, a con man with a heart. 

Above: Light amply reaches director Joe Cook (seated) and cast members (from left) Jean Long, Jonathan Kratzner, Chris Burton and Mike Merrick.

Above: Verdouw and Kratzner in an Act I scene. Verdouw was standing in for an absent cast member in this scene. 

Above: Monts, Merrick and Kratzner.

Above: Laura Madden plays Ermengarde, niece of Vandergelder. 

 Above: Even in this closeup, light remains soft on Merrick's face. 

Above: Madden (right) in a scene with Robert Routier, who plays an artist in love with Ermengarde, a romance her uncle Horace dislikes. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Snow blowin' on a frigid night ...

Today's post is aimed merely to present some images I took on the spur of the moment in Garfield Park while on the walk home last night from the Garfield Park Arts Center during a blowing snow. Several recent posts have been dedicated to winter landscapes, and, yes, this can be added to that batch.

Key differences in today's post are 1) These pictures were taken at night, and 2) while hand-holding the camera using a shutter speed of 1/13 on my Canon 7D and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L (non-IS) lens.

I didn't have my tripod with me, and I ordinarily wouldn't have tried doing this and expect any keepers, and I don't have much luck steadying a camera without image stabilization at shutter speeds slower than 1/60. But it was snowing, and I was intrigued by the effect of such a slow shutter with blowing snow. What's more, I even had the camera out of the bag still from a shoot inside the arts center moments earlier, where I'd been photographing a practice of the Garfield Shakespeare Company's spring production of Thorton Wilder's "The Matchmaker."

So everything seemed "in order" for me to give it the old college try, so I did. I gave thought momentarily to going prone on cold asphalt to steady the camera, but, well ... there was that snow and very coldness thing going on, so I stayed upright, although I did squat low for a couple shots.

In total, I grabbed only a handful of shots; it was too cold, and I hadn't dressed warmly enough to stay around to be out in that weather for long. The building you see featured in all but the last frame below is the MacAllister Center for the Performing Arts, the park's amphitheater.

Interestingly for me, the one shot that gave me the most trouble steadying the camera (to avoid blur) at 1/13 was the last one in this post, a shot of the walkway along the east side of the amphitheater. That view looks north toward the lampposts lining Conservatory Drive.

The most interesting part of that last shot -- again, to me anyway -- was that I tried five different frames to improve upon the sharpness, yet the only usable one was the first. The others, even though I thought was I doing a better job concentrating to keep the camera steady (holding my breath, not hesitating to trip the shutter when I had the shot in focus so as to avoid nervous jitters that should introduce movement, etc.), were all blurry.

I've been on a monochrome phase of late, so I present the results of last night's shoot in both color and black and white.