My favorite vantage point for photography

I was invited by the folks at Light, who are working on some pretty interesting camera technology, to write about my favorite vantage point. I explained to them, as I’m explaining to you now, that I don’t have one. I get bored with shooting the same locations and I’m always on the lookout for new things to shoot.

Then I realized that over the past few years, I’ve been working in the exact same location, putting in lots of time and effort, being happy with the challenges offered by that very same spot and enjoying the beautiful results. But you didn’t know about those photos, because I haven’t published them on my website, and it didn’t occur to me earlier that it was a vantage point. I’m talking about my studio work for my wife’s printed books, in other words, about my food photography.

My favorite vantage point over the past few years has been the whitebox (the official name for it is a seamless tabletop background sweep cyclorama). Here’s what it looks like:


That’s where I’ve been spending my time. Lots of my time. Here’s one example of my work:


This is one of my wife’s raw desserts. It’s a raw vegan whipped cream, mint and strawberry cake. You can find the recipe for it in her Raw Desserts book.

And here’s another photo from the same book. I apologize if it leaves you drooling. It’s a raw vegan brownie with a raw chocolate glaze.


Here’s how I work. I don’t have a set position for the camera or for the speedlites. I work handheld and I vary my camera position, angle and lens until I find what I think is a good frame for the photo. Then I’ll shoot a few photos to see how the lights fall on the subject and whether I need to vary their positions as well, in order to bring out the colors and sculpt the dimensionality of the photo with lights and shadows.

I use three independent speedlites triggered by the on-camera flash, which I sometimes choose to also fire or to only have it act as a remote for the other speedlites. For this photograph, I worked with my Canon gear: one of my three Canon cameras, an EOS 60D and three Canon speedlites. I love my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens and I tend to use that a lot for my studio work. I also use ambient light from within the room itself (I turn on wall and ceiling lights) and I use a mix of warm and cold lights. I know most people say you should use the same temperature lights, but I prefer to mix them in order to get a warmer ambient light. The speedlites overwhelm the subject with their cold light, but there’s a hint of warmer light all around the photo, which I like, and this comes out when I edit the photo as well. I suppose I started doing this when I began to shoot video. People leave a lot of work for post-production, but I do like it when I capture the mood light of the video live, as I shoot it, so I fiddle less with it in post.

I’d like to say I’m the set designer as well, but for my food photography, I leave that to my wife. She’s the award-winning raw chef with seven published books and I’m the photographer. Sometimes we’re inspired and we love the results, and sometimes we’re not happy with what we get. So we re-do the photo shoot at another time. There have also been instances where we’ve re-shot certain recipes for later editions of her books, because we weren’t happy with the photographs and as our skills improved, we knew we could do better.

I wish I could be more helpful than this but for me, every studio photo is a new challenge and I vary my angles and lighting in order to get what I think are the best photos of my subjects. My wife and I then cull through them and pick the ones that’ll go into her books. I then edit each one carefully, add it to the collection designated for that book in my Lightroom catalog and carry on doing this until we’re ready to turn things over to the publishing house.


A Canon repair experience

As I mentioned previously, my Canon 580EX II speedlite hadn’t been working properly with my Canon EOS 5D DSLR since March of 2008. I’d set it in the hot shoe on top of the 5D, as usual, but it would cause the camera not to work at all. The 5D would give me a strange error message where it would display some random settings for the aperture and shutter speed, and the shutter button would not fire.


I tried turning the camera and speedlite on and off. I tried disconnecting and reconnecting the battery. I tried resetting the speedlite in the hot shoe, which sometimes did the trick. Finally, I gave in and sent it into Canon for repairs. That repair ended up costing me a little over $100 plus shipping. The Canon technicians wrote back on the receipt that they’d replaced some cracked part inside the speedlite. Since I never dropped the speedlite or banged it against anything, perhaps that part had been cracked from the get-go, who knows…

Once I got the speedlite back and tried it out, I realized the problem not only hadn’t gone away, but had gotten worse. Now my 5D refused to fire with the speedlite in the hot shoe no matter what lens I used. This was not good, but what puzzled me is that the 5D and 580EX II worked just fine when I used them with the Canon STE-2 wireless transmitter, which sits on the hot shoe and sends a radio signal directly to the speedlite. In other words, the speedlite and camera didn’t work when connected directly, but worked if connected through the wireless transmitter.

I contacted Canon a second time, and was transferred through to advanced support on that call. Once the tech asked me a few questions to pinpoint the problem, he told me this was a fairly common occurrence with the 5D and 580EX II. Apparently, the hot shoe insert for the 580EX II was made just a wee bit thinner than normal, and after normal use of the hot shoe on the 5D, the 580EX II will sometimes not make proper contact with the camera, and will cause it not to fire. That’s why the camera worked with the wireless transmitter, which has a thicker hot shoe insert.

He offered to send me a pre-paid shipping label so I could send both the camera and the speedlite in for repairs, which would now be covered under the previous charge for the repair of the speedlite, as a recurring issue. I sent them in, and when they came back, they both worked as they should, thank goodness. My 5D hot shoe wasn’t replaced though — it was likely just taken off the camera and tightened a bit, which means the problem could re-occur at some point in the future.

I have three bones to pick with Canon about this whole thing:

  1. Why didn’t they make the hot shoe insert for the 580EX II speedlite the right size from the get-go? Why do we, as Canon customers, have to go through this whole thing where we send them in for repairs when it’s not really our fault? I don’t think I’m the only one who’s had this problem. Why not issue a recall where either the hot shoe of the 5D is replaced or tightened, or the hot shoe insert of the 580EX II is replaced?
  2. Related to #1 above, why do we have to pay for this? If it’s a known issue, caused by faulty design, and it happens quite often through normal use of the camera and speedlite, why pay at all? I might be willing to put up with a token fee that covers shipping and handling, but I should not have to pay the regular repair fee for something that was designed to go wrong, so to speak.
  3. Why did my 580 EX II come back from the repairs with what looks like Coke stains on the catchlight panel (see photograph below)? I can only assume the tech that worked on it opened his soda can right next to my speedlite, stained it, and didn’t bother to clean it. I thought the conditions were supposed to be kept sterile in the labs. What’s up with that?

580EX II Speedlite with stains on catchlight

Keep this in mind if you have the same issue with your Canon DSLR. It may not be that the speedlite is defective, it could simply be that it’s not making proper contact with the hot shoe, in which case your options are as laid out above.

How To

Hacking the GN calculations when using manual flash

Here’s how to hack it when you’re stumped as to what guide number to use with a manual flash. This is useful when you’re using an analog SLR that won’t sync the flash power automatically, or you’ve got a DSLR and want to fine-tune the amount of light the flash puts out. I can’t stand having to calculate this with formulas. We all may have seen this :

Aperture (f-stop) = GN X ISO/distance (in meters)

But do any of us know it by heart, or better yet, want to know it? And are we really going to take out a tape and measure the distance to the subject? I know I don’t feel like it. So how can we hack this? Well, we use what knowledge we have to ascertain the flash power we want, and then we adjust the GN (Guide Number) up or down. It works like this:

  • Higher GN means more power for the flash and consequently, more light
  • Higher f-stop means smaller aperture, and that translates to less light coming into the camera
  • Higher ISO means better sensitivity to the light that the aperture lets in
  • Higher distance means less light (remember, we’re using a flash, and the effective distance is limited)

So, what does this mean for us? Simple: we can adjust any of the four factors listed above to get the photo we want. Need more light? Boost the GN and/or the aperture. Can’t get more light, but want a better photo? Boost the ISO, but recognize the photo may be grainy. Can’t boost ISO? Decrease the distance between you and the subject.

Of course, keep in mind that when you boost aperture (choose a lower f-stop), you’ll decrease the depth of field. Think of the focus field as a loaf of bread. When you use a small aperture (large f-stop, 16 for example), you get the whole loaf in the shot. When you use a large aperture (small f-stop, 1.4 for example), you get only a slice in focus. You can effectively think of f-stops as slices of that loaf of bread. Larger f-stops means more slices. So if you’ve got objects in this photo of yours that reside at various points of focus (more slices), to keep them all in focus, you’ll need to keep the aperture fairly small (large f-stop). If you’re only interested in a particular object, by all means, increase the aperture (small f-stop), get more light that way, and use a lower GN. You’ll get more natural colors. Flash light can be harsh and wash out the nuances if overused, so the less you can use, the better off you are.

Don’t think I’ve forgotten to talk about shutter speed. Just realize that you won’t have too much flexibility there, in particular if you’re shooting handheld. Even with a tripod and manual flash, you can’t adjust the speed that much. Too slow, and any people in the photo will be blurry. Plus, the flash will be ineffective. It can’t stay lit for several seconds or more unless you use a bulb. Too fast, and you won’t get any light. Plus, if you’re syncing the flash with the camera, you’re limited by the top sync speed, which varies by camera and usually runs from 1/180 to 1/250 seconds. You’re better off playing with the other variables in the equation.

Remember, you don’t need to go to the trouble of using manual flash unless you have to. If you need to adjust flash intensity and your camera allows it, you can easily boost or decrease it through simple menu functions. Just look this up in your camera’s manual. You can usually use the +/- button, if your camera has one.

Hope this helps!