News and Views from Dave Wilson

Archive for May, 2009

Playing with off-camera flash

by on May.31, 2009, under Family, Photography

Frankie Catches Air

Frankie Catches Air, originally uploaded by David A G Wilson.

I’m definitely way behind the curve when it comes to lighting. Up until now, I’ve considered a flash to be a necessary evil – something to use in a dire emergency or when I’m taking snaps at parties and the like. Over the last few months, however, I’ve been reading David Hobby’s Strobist blog and demolished Joe McNally’s book “The Moment it Clicks” in a single sitting and, inspired by these, have been keen to start using a flash for “serious” photography.

To further this goal, I got out the manual for my Nikon SB-600 to try to figure out how to use some of its advanced modes, notably wireless off-camera triggering and high speed sync (the ability to use the flash when your shutter speed is faster than the usual 1/200th sync speed). With this new information in hand, I headed off for a day of shooting with Miles Bintz at the Walnut Creek BMX track yesterday and this is one of the resulting images.

This proved to be a great experience. I was only using a single flash but the difference it made was incredible. The track is heavily wooded and, with the sun so high in the sky, photos taken without the flash always ended up with the riders’ faces in the shade. By using a flash to the left and below the riders as they jumped, these shadows could be filled in resulting in good light on them. Exposure adjustment also allowed the background to be darkened rather nicely to highlight the rider. I’ve done some arty stuff to this picture but, even with the monochrome background, you can still get a pretty good idea of the effect. No doubt I’ll post a few more (less processed) images from the shoot here over the next week or so.

So what were the main lessons learned yesterday?

  1. To use the high speed sync capabilities offered by the SB-600, you need to ensure that you are not trying to use the on-camera flash for fill. It doesn’t support high speed sync and you find yourself limited to shutter speeds longer than 1/200 or thereabouts. Use it purely as a commander, however, and the SB-600 will sync with all shutter speeds up to 1/4000 (albeit with dramatically reduced guide numbers as the shutter speeds get faster).
  2. You need at least 2 lights to get this right. With a single light on one side of the jumper, you end up with harsh shadows cast by the arm across the body in most shots. Another, slightly less powerful light on the opposite side would help reduce this. Miles was shooting with this arrangement and his lighting looks lot more even.
  3. I thought I would be using my long lens most of the day but ended up getting the best shots (like this one) with the 50mm or even the 10-20mm ultra-wide zoom. The prespective distortion introduced by the ultra-wide results in very dramatic pictures but you take your life in your hands to get them since you end up very close to the bikes as they fly through the air.
  4. The most difficult part of the process once you get the lights positioned is focusing. Most of the time, I stuck to manual focus and prefocused where I thought the bike would be at the apex of the jump. I then fired the shutter when the rider flew through the field of view and chimped the result to check the focal point before refocusing for their next run if necessary.
  5. As an extension of the last point, even the super-fast autofocus on the 70-200mm f2.8 VR can’t track one of these guys as he flies towards you.
  6. Don’t leave your water bottle in the car if you intend spending 4 hours in the sun in the Texas summer.

Yesterday’s experience was enormously positive and I’m left with whole new vistas of flash-enabled photographic opportunity. I’ll definitely go back to the track since I think it would make a great documentary subject in addition to being a fabulous place to get some really dramatic action shots. Maybe I’ve found the photo project I’ve been looking for?

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Memorial Day

by on May.25, 2009, under Photography

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, originally uploaded by David A G Wilson.

All too often, Memorial Day is used as an excuse to party – the start of a new summer season – but it’s worth taking time to remember that this day is really intended for us to remember and honour those who have given their lives in the service of their country (as a foreigner, I don’t specify any particular country here).

This picture was taken at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington D.C., undoubtedly the most moving memorial I have ever visited, and I think it beautifully sums up the day.

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Newsweek Article on Dean Kamen

by on May.23, 2009, under Photography

I’ve just finished reading a very good article on Dean Kamen in the newly redesigned Newsweek. It talks at length about the FIRST Robotics Competition and Dean’s goal of instilling passion for science and technology in today’s high school students. It’s well worth a read and I would add a link here but, unfortunately, the story isn’t on Newsweek’s site as far as I can tell. Look for the cover with the photo of President Obama and you’ll find the story inside.

Here’s a photo I took during a 10 minute session as a papparazo at the FRC competition in San Diego earlier this year. The local press coordinator didn’t have a photographer handy when Dean made an appearance so she grabbed me and put me to work. You can find other photos I took during the regional events in Cleveland and San Diego here or in my previous posts here and here.

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Must-have plugin for Photoshop

by on May.23, 2009, under Photography

If you are a landscape or architectural photographer who finds themselves having to touch out wires strung in front of your subjects, you should immediately head over to the Wire Worm site and download this amazing, free plug-in for Photoshop. It makes removal of nasty electric cables and phone wires extemely easy. The site also has a couple of tutorial showing how to use the filter and it’s well worth watching these before you start playing.

Thanks for Armonds at a.b.c photography for his tip about this tool.

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Downtown Construction

by on May.18, 2009, under Photography

Downtown Construction

Downtown Construction, originally uploaded by David A G Wilson.

I always have a camera somewhere close by. While I still miss quite a few photo opportunities (driving past some fleeting view on the way to work in the car, for example), I’ve also managed to put my point-and-shoot to good use on many occasions when I’ve had a small amount of time free and interesting light to play with. Take, for example, this shot.

Last Friday, I was early for a meeting in downtown Austin so went for a stroll with the trusty Canon G9. The light was tricky – haze and low cloud – but I managed to get several shots that I am happy with including this one and another that appears over on my photoblog. Had I not had a camera in the car, I would have been reduced to using my iPhone or merely being unable to record these images.

Looking back at my most popular photos, quite a few were taken on the spur-of-the-moment using whichever pocket-sized camera I happened to have around. Remember, it’s not the camera that makes a good image, it’s you being in the right place at the right time with a camera.

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Austin Convention Center

by on May.13, 2009, under Photography

Austin Convention Center

Austin Convention Center, originally uploaded by David A G Wilson.

Here’s an image I took for myself after doing my volunteer thing at Caritas a couple of weeks ago. The upstairs area of the Austin Convention Center has this fascinating roof and great blue glass panels which I reckoned made for an interesting ultra-wide angle shot. I desaturated a couple of green signs on the left but the rest of the image is pretty much the colour (or lack of it) that was there.

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Aerial Virtual Tour of New York

by on May.11, 2009, under Photography

I just learned of this beautiful site via Twitter. Take a look for a zoomable, pannable virtual tour of Manhattan from the air. Simply stunning.

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iPhone as a Photographer’s Tool

by on May.11, 2009, under Photography

I’ve had my iPhone for about 18 months now and am still convinced that it is the most beautifully designed piece of consumer electronic wizardry ever. Oddly enough, I seldom use the phone function. I do, however, use applications, location services and data access a great deal and have built up a rather nice core collection of applications that turn the iPhone into a useful photographic Swiss Army knife. I’ve peppered the post with some images I shot last weekend using the phone.

Image Capture

If I have one complaint about the iPhone it is the fact that, although it has a 2 megapixel camera built in, the lens is so awful that it’s practically impossible to get a decently sharp image out of it. That said, I have noticed that some iPhones (my wife’s, for example) are a lot better than others (mine, for example). While I won’t be looking forward to getting any startlingly crisp 10x8s out of the phone, the camera is really useful for grabbing impromptu snaps and getting them onto the web quickly.

During daylight, I typically use the standard iPhone camera app for capture but in low light situations I use another application called NightCamera (costing all of $0.99) which makes great use of the phone’s accelerometers to gauge when to take the shot and returns some surprisingly sharp images even in very poor conditions. The following image was taken inside the Texas State Capitol using NightCamera.

The interior of the main rotunda of the Texas State Capitol taken using the iPhone NightCamera application

The interior of the main rotunda of the Texas State Capitol taken using the iPhone NightCamera application


Unless the light is very bright, I tend to feel that the images captured by the iPhone camera are typically very dull, lacking in contrast and colour saturation. To help out with this, I turn to another great little app called Photogene – a kind of Photoshop-lite for the iPhone and a snip at only $2.99. It offers a basic set of tools that can really help tweak your captures almost to the point of acceptability 🙂 Features include cropping, rotating, exposure, saturation and levels adjustment. The app also includes various special effects ranging from monochrome conversion to sepia toning to the weird and wonderful negative and “totally-whacked-out colour” options. When you don’t want to bother with downloading images to a PC and editing them there, this is a super tool to have on our phone.

A sepia image of the exterior of the State Capitol processed using Photogene.

A sepia image os the exterior of the State Capitol processed using Photogene.

Photographers’ Data

The application I find most useful when doing “serious” photograpy is definitely PhotoCalc, again a great buy at only $2.99. Features I used most include a depth-of-field calculator and sunset/sunrise time display. I also includes exposure and flash calculators.


Once you have an image on the phone, you can obviously download to a PC and handle as you would an image from any other camera. With the iPhone’s communication abilities, though, you can cut this step out and upload directly from the phone to your social networking site of choice. The app I most commonly use for this is Twitterific (free with occasional advertising, $3.99 without) since I normally post iPhone images to TwitPic and associate them with tweets rather than mixing them with my “real” photos on Flickr. If you want to upload to Flickr, however, there are plenty of choices and I have both DarkSlide (which I use as a Flickr viewer) and ShoZu (which I don’t use much, to be honest) installed. Both tools allow you to view your stream including comments and your contacts uploads. ShoZu will also integrate with a bunch of other social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Photobucket, Blogger, SmugMug, Snapfish, TwitPic and just about any others you care to mention. It’s somewhat more complicated to set up but, ff you have a lot of accounts on different sites and want to follow them all in a single app, ShoZu may be the one for you. If, on the other hand, you are looking for something to keep up with Flickr and you don’t like the site, definitely take a look at DarkSlide. Both applications are free.

The Texas State Capitol extension rotunda. Levels correction, sharpening and saturation increase by Photogene.

The Texas State Capitol extension rotunda. Levels correction, sharpening and saturation increase by Photogene.


I have couple of really outstanding image viewers on my iPhone since I use it as a form of portable portfolio. The first is Fotomatic ($4.99) which offers animated slideshows with a large number of 2D and 3D transition options. Some of these are over-the-top but most are very impressive indeed and really create beautiful slideshows. It integrates with Flickr, Picasa and Facebook and lets you build albums from your own photosets or based on keyword searches from public image sources (I’m not entirely sure where these come from).

The second image view I use is CoolIris, an iPhone version of the superb PC app and FireFox plugin which lets you view large numbers of photos on a zoomable, scrolling 3D wall. The iPhone variant integrates with Flickr and gives a similar experience to the PC application but the release is still suffering some teething trouble and I do find that it has a habit of crashing on a fairly regular basis. Wait a couple of releases and give this one a try, though.

Two iconic downtown Austin landmarks. Image cropped and adjusted using Photogene.

Two iconic downtown Austin landmarks. Image cropped and adjusted using Photogene.

Overall, although the iPhone could never be considered a serious camera (certain well publicised cases notwithstanding), it still makes a great tool for photographers both as a casual image capture and upload device and also as an aid in taking and showing your images. Give some of these apps a try and you may also be convinced.

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Reflections on Reflections

by on May.05, 2009, under Photography

Reflections of a Boat

Reflections of a Boat, originally uploaded by David A G Wilson.

I’ve been making a very conscious effort recently to broaden my photographic horizons by trying out different styles of photography that I would not normally consider my “thing.” Part of this is that I’ve often had short periods of time where I had a camera with me but no opportunity to take the kinds of images that I would usually consider shooting. This image is one such example – it was taken on a family boat trip on Lake Austin. Another part, though, is that I reckon that it may help me out of a bit of creative rut I’ve been in lately.

By forcing myself to think outside my usual comfort zone (thanks PhotoNetCast), I’m reevaluating what makes a good picture and trying to create good pictures in whichever environment I find myself rather than waiting for a photo day and going to a particular location that I have previously tagged as offering great image potential.

One thing I have noticed as a result of this shift is that I’m shooting a lot more abstracts these days. This is one I’m very happy with but I also have a couple more on Flickr and my photoblog that turned out pretty well too so I’ll probably continue to explore this kind of image for a while and see what pops up.

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Jeanette Walls at Caritas Luncheon

by on May.01, 2009, under Photography

I spent a couple of hours this past Wednesday volunteering as photographer at a major Caritas fundraiser at the Austin Convention Center – an 800-person lunch held in a huge upstairs ballroom. The guest speaker this year was Jeanette Walls, onetime gossip columnist and author of the bestselling book “The Glass Castle”, a memoir of her childhood, growing up in poverty with eccentric, nomadic parents. Ms Walls spoke extremely well, engaging the attendees with a collection of both funny and shocking stories. As an advocate for the work of Caritas, they could have found no better speaker.

From a photographic perspective, this was a tricky assignment for me. Last year’s event was held in a different venue and people milled around the hotel atrium prior to the lunch allowing me to take photos in a fairly well-lit environment with decent backgrounds. This year, however, the attendees were shepherded into the ballroom to see various art exhibits very early so most of the photos had to be taken in a cavernous and very poorly lit space and, worse, while sitting around the lunch tables. The art exhibit was interesting but all the pieces were exhibited in front of a strange, reflective diamond-plate paneling which made use of flash somewhat hit-or-miss. Despite the difficulties, I ended up with around 100 pictures that Caritas can use in publicity and this is one of my favourites.

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