Anatomy of a photo: Balvenie Scotch

Several unconnected events converged to make this photo (below). First, I received a review copy of The Nikon Creative Lighting System by Mike Hagen (from rockynook and NikoniansPress publishing). A review is on the way. Second, and more importantly, I received as a gift a bottle of Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old single malt scotch.

Read on to get details of the lighting setup and what I think works and could be improved in this photo.

Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old

The setup

This scene was lit with two off-camera flashes. The first reflected from an umbrella directly to camera left set at -1.3 EV. The second directly behind the bottle, aimed at about a 45 degree up angle and towards the camera at 0 EV (TTL mode, normal sync). This flash was zoomed to 50mm. Both flashes were triggered wirelessly from the D90 built-in commander which did not contribute to the exposure. 98mm, 1/60s, f/5.6.

Flash setup

The good

Let’s talk about what I like in this photo and what I don’t like. First, the good. Overall, I got the effect I was going for. The scotch seems to radiate with a warm, inner light (which is just how it makes you feel). The tone is somewhat dark and moody as one would expect from a drink that’s so, you know, manly.

I intentionally used settings to blur the background container while still keeping all of the important text legible. I very much like the reflections of the whisky on the container. The background is dark and all of the attention is on the bottle. This photo (shot as a JPG fine) was cropped, resized, and sharpened slightly. No other image adjustments were made. It was the best of about 15 different takes.

The bad

Flaws Flaws are more interesting thought, aren’t they? For starters, the bottle isn’t full (a). I was willing to sacrifice a perfect photo for a dram or two. I guess that makes me a bad photographer. But I have no regrets.

I zoomed the flash behind the bottle to 50mm to help minimize light spill (b). You can still see some light reflecting off the bottle, lower right. This would be virtually impossible to completely eliminate without using a snoot for the flash but is easily removed in post-processing.

There’s even more light spill lighting up the side of the container behind the bottle. Whether this is a flaw or not is a matter of taste. Again, it could be eliminated with a snoot on the rear flash. This area would be more difficult to deal with in post.

I have a feeling that the photo would be better off without the window reflections on the bottle (d). Or perhaps, with cleaner reflections. Closing the curtains or moving to a different room without windows would have helped. It would be very difficult and time-consuming to cleanly remove the reflections on the neck in post so this is definitely a decision you want to make while shooting.

A little extra light on the tube container in the background (c) would have helped balance the photo a little better and added interest without taking away from the bottle. Maybe just a little rim lighting on the left side. Or maybe a dim spotlight thrown across “The Balvenie”…

What do you think? Any tips to share? What would you change about this photo?

Saturday Grab Bag


Ten Thousand Pictures of You from Robin King on Vimeo.

But if shooting 26,000 photos with your 350D for a stop-motion film isn’t your thing…

Most popular posts of 2008

Firework Display - Hogmanay Street Party, Dornoch, Scotland

Photo by: foxypar4 (cc-by)

Happy new year! I hope you had a great holiday and got to spend some quality time, as I did, with the people you love. I thought a quick look back at some of the most popular posts of 2008 would be a great way to start Photodoto.com’s third year.

As you can see, our posts run the gamut from quick tips, core photography instruction, and reviews…to software, image editing, and fun projects. And we’ll have a lot more in 2009. So thanks for reading, tell your friends, and stick around—it’s going to be a great year!

Quick Fix for Cluttered Backgrounds
Despite all that has been written about keeping the background of your photos simple, that goal is not always achievable. Sometimes your subject is in a place with a busy background everywhere. Or perhaps the subject is doing something that you don’t want to interrupt by walking around the person or requesting that she or he move to a different location.

The importance of focus and quick tips on how to get it right
Focus in photography is about a lot more than simply sharpness or being able to see what you are looking at. Focus can enhance a subject by making it stand out from or blend into its surroundings, focus can draw you in, and the right focus can create an emotional connection with the viewer. No matter what style of photography you enjoy, focus can work for you or against you.

Black and White with a Splash of Colour
One of the techniques people most often ask me to teach them is making a photograph like the one on the right that is black and white with one other colour. There are a few ways to achieve this effect but here is the one I find easiest for Photoshop users.

Review: Nikon Coolpix S550
Before you even take it out of the box the Nikon Coolpix S550 looks cool (mine looks especially cool being “cool blue” coloured). But while looking good is nice the important thing is how it performs.

Big and Tasty Food Photography Tips Roundup
I’ve got a nice roundup here of food photography sources with a ton of great tips, tutorials, and videos for making food look tasty on camera. How seriously you take this probably depends to some extent on whether you’ve ever heard the term “food stylist.”

Basic Travel Photography
I’ve just returned from a little jaunt to Portugal and I have to say there is little else that gets me as eager to get my camera out as wandering around a city I’ve never seen before. And of course, in the age of the compact digital camera pretty much everyone takes a camera with them when they travel these days. But how do you come back with photographs your friends and family won’t have to feign interest in?

Take better flash photos in one easy step
Many people shy away from flash photography because it makes people look bad. Photographs taken with a flash can leave harsh shadows that highlight every wrinkle, turn skin blue, shine a flood light at thinning hair, create hot spots on the forehead, nose and cheeks, and generally make subjects look unattractive. But when there isn’t enough light, sometimes your only choice is to use a flash or not take photos at all.

Review: The Flip Mino HD  Video Camera
I really like the Flip video cameras. I reviewed the original Flip Mino back in June and recommended it for anyone who wanted to shoot more than a couple of minutes of video at a time or who wanted to reserve the space on their camera’s memory card just for pictures. The Flip Mino is a handy, compact, easy to use video recorder. And the Flip Mino HD is virtually identical in every way except one.

Free noise reduction plugin for the GIMP
But one thing my stock GIMP install didn’t have was a decent noise removal filter. That is, until I downloaded and installed the GREYCstoration plugin. Installing it is as simple as downloading and dropping the plugin into the GIMP plugins directory. Restart GIMP and you’ll find a new menu under Filters | Enhance | GREYCstoration.

Screencast: Curves color enhancement tutorial
This 2.5 minute screencast shows a simple and fast technique using multiple layers to enhance the colors in a photograph.

Buying a digital camera for your kids
My kids are naturally curious about photography having a shutterbug for a dad. I started them out tentatively with some disposable film models but those were unsatisfying. Too slow. No LCD screens. Kids aren’t known for their patience. Digital was made for them.

Learning Composition: The Rule of Thirds
Whether you’re feeling artistic or not, good composition is important for making images that resonate with viewers. Everything else being equal, poor composition can create an itch in a viewer—a subconscious and annoying one that can’t be scratched.

Tethered shooting on Ubuntu Linux using gPhoto2
My D70, like most digital cameras, has a USB port that allows me to connect it to my computer and download photos. Many cameras also allow you to control them using your computer when they are connected. This is called tethered shooting.

Introducing Your Little One to Photography
One of my day jobs involves working with special needs children and children in hospital. I do a lot of work with children on the autistic spectrum and children with learning difficulties, as well as with at-risk youth and kids with chronic illnesses. One of my absolute favourite things to do is introduce these children to photography. Not only do I enjoy sharing my passion but for a lot of the children I work with it is a unique way for them to express some creativity.

Review: Nikon D90 first impressions

On semi-impulse I bought a Nikon D90 kit last Thursday from Amazon after nearly four years with my trusty D70. I sat down with the manual over the weekend and got to know it a little better. There are plenty of great in-depth reviews of the D90 out there with tech comparisons and sample photos. This is not one of those. I’m just going to give you my first impressions of the D90, especially things about it that made me smile, from the perspective of a D70 upgrader:

  • Live view! Giant LCD! 6.7x image review zoom! Awesome. The D70 screen looks like a postage stamp now.
  • It is perceptibly faster and lighter.
  • I turned on the viewfinder grid, turned off the focus beep, and switched to selected area for focus because that’s how I roll.
  • The default image processing settings are fairly neutral and true to life. In Flickr terms: boring. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but I’m not particularly interested in absolute truth, photographically speaking. I prefer my photos to have a little more pop so I adjusted the default to Vivid which boosts both the contrast and saturation. Speaking of which, you can record up to 9 custom image processing settings in the camera and save them off to SD cards to store or share.
  • Turned on custom setting d3 which shows the ISO setting in the viewfinder instead of the remaining frame count. Maybe that will stop me from shooting entire rolls at ISO 500 instead of 200. I doubt it. But one must try to be optimistic. I said “rolls.” How old am I?
  • The self-timer can be set for 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 seconds and you can adjust the number of shots (up to 9). So you can set the self-timer to go off in 5 seconds and take, say, 3 shots (which it does at what feels like the low-speed frame rate).
  • The new AF-A focusing mode which automatically chooses between AF-S (single) and AF-C (continuous) focus depending on subject movement seems really good on paper and so far it has worked out well in practice. And thank you Nikon for the AF selector button on the body.
  • I must say I’m a fan of active D-lighting. In almost every test shot, the D90 makes better exposures than my D70 at default settings. Matrix metering and auto white balance are markedly improved, especially in difficult lighting situations. The D70 has a strong bias against blown highlights, so much so that I routinely shot my D70 with an exposure compensation of +0.7. The D90 isn’t nearly as overprotective (especially with active D-lighting enabled, strength: Normal). At the moment I think the D90 will work quite nicely at +0 or even -0.3.
  • It can record RAW + JPG FINE for every exposure. On an 8GB SDHC card I get a readout of 361 available images at that setting (539 RAW only, 1.1k JPG Fine only).
  • Built-in image adjustment and RAW processing. Pretty cool, though it’s no Photoshop/Lightroom/Gimp obviously. Post-processing lets you do the usual stuff: crop, rotate, adjust white balance, exposure compensation, choose picture controls (e.g. vivid, landscape, portrait, custom, etc.). In addition, you can apply D-lighting, red-eye removal (although I couldn’t get the D90 to give me red-eye), convert to black and white, sepia, cyanotype, filter effects (skylight, warm, red, green, blue, cross screen), resize, quick retouch (contrast + saturation), adjust distortion, and add fisheye effect. Each adjustment creates a new JPG and leaves the original untouched. It’s a nice-to-have for a guy like me who doesn’t particularly like post-processing images.
  • Strobists take note: The D90 has built-in flash commander support for up to two groups + the built-in flash + adjustable channels (1-4)! It’s almost like getting an SB-800 thrown into the kit for free. Awesome news for folks with multiple strobes.
  • No complaints about the 18-105 kit lens. The VR works well, it has the same field of view at the wide end as the 18-70, and it has produced fine bokeh so far. Plastic lens mount but, hey, it’s the kit lens. Exactly the same lens hood as the 18-70 kit and takes the same filter size (67mm).
  • Movie mode is a fun, fun, fun little battery drainer. Image quality is excellent, sound quality is acceptable (what you’d expect from a dinky in-camera microphone). I’ll post a video sample soon.

As I said, I’ve only had the camera a few days. More impressions as I learn more about it. Some weekend shots below, from my Flickr account:

Tower 4

Huntington Beach Condos

Hey! You got video in my DSLR!

Personally, I’m really excited about the Nikon D90, not only because it looks like a great camera and a nice upgrade to my trusty old original D70 (I must like odd numbers), but because it’s got this great high-def video feature. I’ve always liked video but I’ve always hated video cameras. I have a Panasonic DV camera around here somewhere… probably on the floor gathering dust. Too big. Transferring video from tapes. It’s a chore. But video in my DSLR? That can be recorded without the use of disposable media? At 720p? In a device I have with me everywhere already that can also record 12 megapixel stills? Heaven!

Of course, Canon announced video capability in their new Canon 5D Mark II. They’ll undoubtedly include it the next generation of their Rebel line as well. The Mark II is also a very nice camera and does 1080p. It’s just a bit pricier, though.

I can think of a bunch of fun things to do with a video camera with interchangeable lenses. I almost bought one today on impulse, the kit with the new 18-105 VR, but I had to stop and remind myself about the tax check I recently sent to the IRS and pesky details like my health insurance bill and my mortgage payment… Soon…

So what’s your take on this whole DSLR with video shenanigans? For or against? Excited or grumpy?

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