Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Frozen gravel

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Gravel hides under a layer of ice in the parking lot of North Rich Plaza in Richardson. The shopping center's sprinklers formed the ice which lasted with the freezing temperatures.

New finds

The last few entries have been a little heavy. Here's light reading for a change.

Photo bloggers have been busily surfing over the holiday. Blue Ridge Blog found some really interesting high-speed images while From The Night Desk found PhoToonz. Check them out.

Enough for now,

Monday, November 29, 2004

Morning frost

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Morning frost begins to melt from a fallen leaf near the Twin Creeks Golf Course in Allen.

Incidentally, the image above was made within minutes of this image.

Depth of field

Depth of field is the area of sharp focus between the nearest and farthest distance of possible focus for any given f-stop. Roughly, it's a range of focus. It's determined by the amount of light allowed to pass through a constricted opening (f-stop).

As a practical tool, using depth of field increases the thickness (depth) of the focal plane. Depth of field is measurable and predictable although most PJs use alternative methods to "guesstimate" it.

We learn depth of field from practical applications. As the f-stop becomes smaller, the depth of field becomes greater. Eventually, if the PJ gets a small enough f-stop, practically everything could be in focus.

It would take a lot of time and money and possibly some bent coat hangers dangling from the lens housing, but it's possible to create a 0-to-infinity lens. But, it's not practical for PJ work.

Ultimate depth of field works great for someone with a tripod and a lot of time to photograph a bouquet of flowers or a landscape. However, it doesn't apply well to most PJ assignments.

Instead, PJs need to know how to keep two or more objects or layers of the image area in focus. They also need to know how to get the depth of field exactly on these items so the subject could do normal activities (like breathing). They try not to surpass the required f-stop for the subject matter to keep shutter speed useful. In practical low-light terms, consider one stop is the difference between hand-held and a monopod and two stops requires a tripod.

Additionally, PJs need to understand which lens combination is most likely to yield the desired result. Often this is akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole.

Common method
This is sloppy, but it works. For any given f-stop, the total depth of field can be divided into three parts. One-third is in front of the focal plane at the maximum aperture (what's visible through the eyepiece) while two-thirds is behind the focal plane.

For the technical folks out there, it's one-half the distance forward and two times the distance back. It's the same result either way.

In either case, it's important to understand this rule while covering extremely quick subjects (races) - particularly when the PJ is positioned in front of the subjects (near the finish line). If the PJ is concerned about making a mistake, go with caution and actually focus slightly in front of the subject and let the depth of field make up for the difference.

I said it was sloppy. Let's talk about absolute precision after you cover hydroplane races. ;-}

Lens markings
High-quality lenses have depth of field guide marks. These are the strange, multi-colored lines on the lens barrel near the range number guide. If a lens is handy, take a look at it. Some older, manual lenses have a whole rainbow of lines spaced equally from the focus range line (center line). Newer lenses may have two sets of lines or none at all.

If we look at the line colors, we notice they match the color markings of different f-stops. F/11 may be blue and f/22 may be yellow, etc... Newer lenses don't use the color code, but have a small number next to the line (11, 22, etc...). These lines are depth-of-field guide lines. Everything between the depth-of-field guide lines is in focus for a given f-stop.

Meanwhile, some modern zoom lens may not even have the guides. Recently, I saw a new lens without any f-stops on the lens because it was designed to only work with "pro-sumer" digital cameras.

Precise depth of field distance
Below is the method to maximize depth of field. The process takes practice (like everything else we do). As PJs settle into their own style, they use a combination of general and precise measurements to get what they want for different assignments.

It doesn't matter if the numbers align in meters or feet, but make sure not to switch between scales while working (especially if using laser range finders or parabolic mirrors).

Obviously, use a tripod whenever possible both to stabilize the camera and make range measurements more accurate. Next decide which two objects or layers to keep in focus.

1. Focus on the nearest object and note the distance.
2. Focus on the farther object and note the distance.
3. Move the focus ring until both distances fit between the depth of field guides.

As the PJ looks through the lens, most elements appear out of focus because the focal plane is between the two objects while the lens is at its maximum aperture. The PJ could hit the depth-of-field preview button, but it still looks slightly off due to light loss. On a dit, fire a frame and chimp the results.

Making adjustments
Frequently, the two objects or layers don't immediately fit into the depth of field. Then, PJs can either back away from the subjects or change lenses.

As evinced below (hyperfocal distance), a lens with a smaller focal length yields a greater depth of field at closer ranges. Frequently, this determination can be handled without moving because the lens itself because it lets the PJ know which ones can handle the range.

The trick is to choose the correct distance and/or lens for the subject. Decisions are determined by how large and close together the two objects are as well as what's happening in the background. I'll save the lens optics and dot-gain discussions for another day, but PJs need to understand the same visual information is held in both a severely cropped 15mm image and a full-frame 600mm image. However, if the crop is too severe, the image can become useless.

Deliberate background blur
When a PJ wants a background to be muted or lost in circles of confusion, the most common remedy is to set the lens to its maximum aperture (f/2.8). This works fine most of the time.

Occasionally, the PJ needs fill flash during a bright, sunny day and also needs to diminish a "busy" background. This is when the maximum depth of field distance again becomes useful. It also becomes somewhat complicated, but we'll work through it. Below is a step-by-step method.

1. Establish the synch speed of the camera.
2. Make EV calculations to match the film speed and aperture for available light.
3. Calculate the flash-to-subject distance and adjust the distance or flash output until it falls within the range set by the other factors.
4. Focus on the subject and note the distance.
5. Move this distance to the farthest point on the depth of field range.
6. Press the shutter release button.

The result is a focused subject with proper ambient and fill light. Additionally, all other elements are outside the depth of field. The PJ has lifted the sharply-focused subject from a cluttered background while still shooting at around f/22.

If the PJ looks through the lens, the subject appears out of focus because the focal plane is far in front of the actual subject. As long as the range is correct on the depth of field guide, the image will be fine.

Hyperfocal distance
Hyperfocal distance is the distance, at a given f-stop, between a camera lens and the nearest point (hyperfocal point) which yields sharpness to infinity. This distance varies in proportion to the focal length of the lens. Again, this term only applies for depth-of-field to infinity measurements (mostly landscapes).

Each lens has a different hyperfocal distance range. The range is based on mathematics and lens optical corrections.

The equation is: the square of the focal length divided by the product of the f-stop times the circle of confusion. The circle-of-confusion variable changes for each film format.

As practical examples, a particular 50mm lens can handle everything between six feet and infinity at f/22. While a particular 100mm lens handles from 19 feet to infinity and a particular 300mm lens can only handle everything between 150 feet and infinity at f/22.

For those who aren't already confused, a smaller focal length offers more depth of field at a given f-stop, but a wider angle of view (so scene elements appear further away with greater separation). The inverse is true.

Enough for now,

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Answers to tough PJ questions

One of this blog's readers asked some questions for her college research. I think many readers would like to know the answers. Like many bright, young PJs, she's trying to estimate the landscape before she leaves academia.

Basically, the PJ landscape is made of gelatin nowadays. For a new PJ who has a good eye, a strong knowledge of photography techniques, enjoys the biz side and loves adventure, the future looks bright. For the rest, it's bleak.

Even for the best photographers, PJ is an eat-you-up-and-spit-you-out profession. Those who aren't ready for this reality are heading toward hardship and heartache. Her questions and my answers should sum up the major aspects of consideration.

Start-up costs
Q) I'm trying to get an idea about set-up costs. You mentioned that an aspiring PJ should get $20K and meet you on Monday with equipment from your list. I laughed at first, but then I realized that you probably weren't kidding. So, I'd like to know what basic equipment a PJ needs, and what would be a minimum ball-park cost.

A) For a pro, the list is about the minimum. I just bought a dit (high-end digital camera) this week. I got a bargain at $1,500 (it should go for about $3,200). The top-of-the-line body costs more.

Although a 50mm lens is cheap (about $200), most other lenses are in the $1,500 to $4k range. A PJ must have three basic lenses - a 50mm, a 17~35mm and a 80~200mm. All of these must be f/2.8 or faster. I strongly encourage an additional 300mm (f/2.8) or longer lens as well as a micro/macro lens.

Flashes are cheap, about $300-500 each. A decent strobe with all the proper gizmos and gadgets can set someone back $2k to $10k. The remote transceivers are about $180 each (PJs need at least a transmitter and two receivers or three transceivers).

Since staff jobs are almost impossible for new grads, a Mac laptop with a wireless transmitter is also required (about another $1k or more). Then the PJ needs a monopod, tripod, synch cords, a camera bag, some filters, light stands, etc...

Yes, $20k is the starting point.

Since the holiday gift-giving season is coming, parents need to be reminded what their little PJs need. ;-)

Q) What types of projects/genres can a PJ specialize? I've checked out your section on "Pro Photographer's sites" and found that some of the PJs photograph weddings, news, sports, war and nature. At what point does a PJ become a photographer? I loved David and Kim's site, but wondered if their pictures of flowers qualified as PJ pictures.

A) Good eye. David won the Pulitzer Prize this year while covering the war in Iraq. He also won the Lone Star Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary Program this year for his documentary "War Stories."

PJs are visual chameleons. Rather than specializing, we diversify. David is a good example. Most PJs are fairly smart and get bored easily. So, we do something for a while until we master it. Then we try something new. It doesn't mean we ever stop doing the first specialization, we simply add to our toolbox.

In our daily work, we're expected to know how to handle anything. We cover almost every sub-genre of photography - often in the same day. If it's a new technology (like dit cameras or digital video were), we're given a day to figure it out and then expected to master it.

Because newspaper readers are as diverse as the community, we try to keep everyone happy. Gardeners want to know about flowers, so we photograph flowers. Entomologists want to know about bugs, so we photograph butterflies. If we can get both in one frame, we just made two people happy as well as provided some variety for all the readers.

PJs are PJs as long as they have notepads. Photographers aren't responsible for reporting (or even photographing) facts. Photojournalism is a marriage of truthful words and images. We must collect visual, factual information as well as the words placed near our photographs. We must also condense these facts down to one image and two sentences (a cutline).

If I make an image because it's important to me, I'm a photographer. Anyone can be a photographer. If I know why I made the image, the subject's proper name and all the facts surrounding the image, and I make an image because it's important to the readers, then I'm a PJ.

Each person who knows how to wield a hammer cannot make a violin.

PJ schools
Q) Do you recommend any particular schools for PJ preparation?

A) Ohio University, Western Kentucky, Missouri and Brooks have strong PJ programs lately. However, the school doesn't make the student. The student makes the education.

Most of the top-level PJs actually come from different backgrounds (electrical engineering, languages, philosophy, political science and business majors). They all have well-rounded educations and are typically in the top of their class academically (because they understand everything is important). A 3.5 or higher GPA is the norm.

Q) What are starting salary ranges for small/large newspapers?

A) We don't do this for the money.

People who love money should get into banking. People who love photos should get into commercial photography. People who love poverty and near-death experiences should get into PJ.

Starting salaries in PJ are $25. Oh, you meant per/year. OK, $25. Freelancers earn by the assignment or image. Their income is determined by their own motivation, energy, talent and biz sense.

There is no adequate way to compare fruit and flamingos. Use this calculator to get market comparisons. I'm using Dallas numbers, and you can adjust from there.

Realistically, a GREAT college photographer could make about $12k-$20k p/yr at their first small daily/weekly staff job.

Let's see here... equipment costs $20k, education was another $60k, but I'm earning $12k... this means I'll need to live in a box and forage for food for the first few years... Yup! Sign me up. :-)

Once a PJ has several years of experience and some major awards, they can move up into the major metro daily papers and get about $30k.

At the biggest papers with all the bells and whistles (car, phone and equipment allowances and after-market sharing), they could get $50k or slightly more.

Having given the depressing part of this story, the up-side is freelance and awards. This is what actually keeps some PJs at a decent standard of living. Well... and wealthy relatives...

Some photo awards come with hefty cash prizes (Pulitzer, World Press Photo and other international awards). Otherwise, a high-end PJ can earn $5k or more for a single day shooting a wedding (including all the additional preparation and delivery work). Low-end PJs can still earn $250 p/hour shooting "events" for the event organizer (public relations).

Moonlight work is dangerous though. First, at small papers, editors may call the PJ from a freelance gig to cover something for the community. Then, there's the potential of stepping over an ethical boundary and having a conflict of interest (working for a politician for example). However, most PJs know the line and won't cross it. More often, there's the lure of crossing to the "dark side" (making a real living).

Some staffers make more income from shooting weddings than from the newspaper. They use the staff job to promote their talent and leverage their name to get a regular freelance clientele. Then, they can eventually walk away to a lucrative new career. Everyone must find their own tipping point.

Important note: The junior PJs tend to work on weekends while some senior PJs get the wedding gigs. In other words, when a PJ makes it to the big time, there's still a long way to go. If PJs make it to the very top, they'll be in conflict areas and won't have time to arrange weddings. So again I'll say, don't get in this for the money.

Enough for now,

Friday, November 26, 2004

Art therapy

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

A child works with art therapist Dana Tittle at the Children's Advocacy Center in Dallas. The center joins the efforts of five public and private agencies to treat abused children and bring their offenders to justice.

Note: The child's name cannot be released because of her protected status.

Critique of the day: Emily Ding – Advanced amateur

Emily Ding requests an advanced amateur critique of the images on her blog (blog no longer exists) from Nov. 8 to 25, 2004. There is a comment section, please add critique comments there. She is a law student and photography hobbyist. There is no deadline.

"I took these pictures of the European Social Forum 2004 simply out of my own interest," she stated. "I'll be able to handle a harsh critique" of the images.

Please review how to give and get a critique before commenting on her site.

Enough for now,

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


photos © Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

The string quartet Bond performs at the Irving Arts Center in Irving on Tuesday, November 23, 2004. The quartet includes (from left to right) Haylie Ecker, Eos Chater, Gay-Yee Westerhoff and Tania Davis.

Tania Davis (left) and Gay-Yee Westerhoff (right) of the string quartet Bond performs at the Irving Arts Center in Irving on Tuesday, November 23, 2004.

This assignment was a very pleasant surprise. The assignment was to shoot a string quartet. So, I showed up at the venue with my camera in a blimp, a bulky sound dampener. Then I found out it’s a rockin’ string quartet. OK, maybe not rockin’, but loud enough to ditch the blimp.

There was great rejoicing in the land of Mark.

Enough for now,

Monday, November 22, 2004

Ivan Moravec performs

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Pianist Ivan Moravec performs at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth on Monday, November 22, 2004.

Piano concerts are a challenge. Typically, the performer concentrates on his/her hands on the ivories. If it's in a darkened hall, this means the pianist's face is normally in shadow. Add to this the need to blimp the camera, there's no way to get the keys in the same frame as the performer’s eyes, they typically wear black on a dark background with a black piano... The problems mount.

The high point of an entire concert (from a PJ's point of view) is when the pianist suddenly looks up and possibly raises one hand high enough to see. It's the visual equivalent of a blocked punt.

Enough for now,

La Calle Doce bartender

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Miguel Hernandez, a bartender at La Calle Doce, poses for a portrait at the restaurant in Dallas on Monday, November 22, 2004.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Gingerbread family

Photos © Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Austin Bond, 5, helps himself to some decorating candy before other family members arrive to decorate gingerbread houses at the Thorne family home in Grand Prairie on Sunday, November 21, 2004.

Although her ankle is broken, Lois Thorne, 80, prepares icing to decorate gingerbread houses at her home. The family gathers annually at the family home to participate in the gingerbread house tradition.

Amy McCauley (left of center) helps Campbell McCauley, 2, (right of center) decorate a gingerbread house. It was Campbell McCauley's birthday.

Tori Thorne (center) watches as Hannah Wangler, 14, (left) and Hannah Cook, 15, (center, background) decorate a gingerbread house.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Thai flowers

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Decorations containing candles, incense and flowers greet guests during the Thai Festival at the Buddhist Center of Dallas in Dallas on Saturday, November 20, 2004.

One of the cool things about freelancing is the ability to make images like this. I could make the image as a staffer, but it wouldn't get published in one of the official outlets. So, it would basically die forever.

Even as I made this image, I knew I was making it for my own happiness. I liked the color and the repetition of pattern. I made the image for me - actually for me and y'all. It was rather liberating and made me start enjoying photography again.

Although I liked my PJ work and did the best I could, I was a little jealous of the other photo bloggers who could shoot and display whatever they chose. I could only show the images after they were published in one of the official outlets.

I own several film cameras. However, it means I'd be out the cost of film and developing if I wanted to shoot something for me and y'all. Not to mention the scanning time involved and my home negative scanner is not professional quality.

Now, I have my own dit. I can shoot whatever I want, whenever I want. I get to choose which images I want to publish and when. Pretty darn cool. I'm not exactly sure how this works with the NPPA monthly clip contests, but I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Enough for now,

Thai fruit

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Fruit carver Bubpha Ariyamethee places garnishes in some of her creations during the Thai Festival at the Buddhist Center of Dallas in Dallas on Saturday, November 20, 2004.

Turkey Leg Classic

I'm posting these as a group because they don't make sense as stand-alone images. The Turkey Leg Classic is an annual remote-controlled auto race. The gasoline-powered autos have an average cost of about $1,200 and are capable of speeds faster than 50 miles per hour. On scale, these vehicles move faster than any race cars. It makes for an interesting shoot.

Photos © Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

(Above) Mike Hyams of Tulsa, Okla. prepares his remote-controlled truck at Johnny Cool Guy Raceway in Fort Worth on Saturday, November 20, 2004.

(Right) A remote-controlled auto flies over a hill during The Turkey Leg Classic.

(Below) Clifton Adams of Forney, Texas operates his remote-controlled auto.

Fans of remote-controlled racing watch as cars fly over a hill.

Clean meditation

Phrachaiwat Latthitham, a monk visiting from a New York temple, skims leaves from a meditation pool during the Thai Festival at the Buddhist Center of Dallas in Dallas on Saturday, November 20, 2004.

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Thai Fest

Ann Suankeaw helps sell vegetables and chats with guests during the Thai Festival at the Buddhist Center of Dallas in Dallas on Saturday, November 20, 2004.

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

This image starts a new chapter for me. This is my first published freelance digital image. I still can't see myself as a freelancer per se, but I'm working on it until I get a new home.

The credit line also changes because it's a shared copyright. The paper had rights to it for the first 30 days and now it's mine (along with all the other images taken during the assignment). If anyone wants a print of something they've seen run in the newspaper recently, they need to contact the newspaper within the first 30 days. Otherwise, I've added a new entry for aftermarket questions.

In either case, click on the copyright symbol ( © ) to see the status of the image. If should direct you to the current copyright owner's information.

Enough for now,

Slow down

I'll probably be too exhausted to post until around Thanksgiving. No problems, I'm happily booked solid for the next few days.

Until then, remember all PJ-related entries can be viewed here (there's also a link on the sidebar to the right). Additionally, the images are much better if they are expanded to full size by clicking on the image area.

Water the plants and feed the dust bunnies while I'm gone. You're welcome to have wild parties until the police arrive. ;-}

Enough for now,

Friday, November 19, 2004

Gain trust for portraits

When making most portraits, PJs want the subject to be relaxed and look pleasant. Frequently, it's the subject's chance to shine and get recognition for achievements. Consequently, PJs and subjects must work together and trust each other.

Often, PJs are required to be part sociologist and part stand-up comedian to accomplish the images. Meanwhile, the patience clock (or cross-town fire) starts ticking the second the PJ arrives.

Personal space
It’s possible to get too close to someone’s personal space (particularly with wide-angle lenses). Each person has a different comfort level for personal space. Often this is dictated by culture. Americans are notorious for wanting lots of personal space while people in many other countries are comfortable in close proximity.

This can cause conflict and misunderstandings while shooting. PJs know we could stand across the room with a 600mm and shoot unflatteringly tight shots of anyone. We also know we can stand a few feet away with an ultra-wide-angle lens and shoot the entire person and most of the room. These are mechanical and technical issues the subject may not understand.

The subject only knows when the PJ is too darn close for comfort. Therefore, the subject becomes uncomfortable and looks as much in the images.

Build trust
To overcome this situation, it takes some trust building. Since PJs don’t typically have oodles of time with the subject, we need to have a plan for a successful portrait session.

The subject must know what the PJ is doing and why s/he’s doing it. The subject also wants to be reassured that they don’t look strange. Some subjects may have had bad experiences with photographers in the past. Now, they assume every photo will be as bad. It’s the PJ’s job to quickly convince them otherwise.

Trust is normally built within the first few minutes of meeting the subject. In these critical first few minutes, the subject will assess how personable, talented, skilled, honest and creative the PJ is. Whatever happens next reinforces any of these initial concepts.

Consequently, the most important first impression for the subject should be a warm, genuine smile from the PJ. Maybe it's a Texan thing, but I always offer to shake hands upon meeting a subject (if I have a free hand). If I don’t have a free hand, I typically say, "I'd shake hands, but my hands are full." This is the first step to gain trust. A handshake is an implied truce.

Next, if the shoot is indoors, ask to enter the home or facility. For portraits, the PJ is the subject's guest. As such, the PJ should be courteous and work with the subject. If PJs need extra equipment from the car, ask if it's OK to reenter without knocking before leaving the location.

The courtesy shown by PJs buys more time for the total shoot. It's also important to use set-up time to reassure the subject and build some trust.

We ask to see some different rooms or patio options. We look around the scenes to find a visually clean shooting area. We're also looking at personal artifacts around the room to find common interests to break the ice. The PJ can comment about a few artifacts, ask questions or relate a story to find common ground.

Once we've chosen an area, we set up. While setting up light stands and tripods, PJs explain what they're about to do. We explain how many frames we'll use, how bright the strobes or flash is and why we're using it. If we're using a florescent gel, we show the subject the gel and tell them they don't want to be this color (bug green).

Be confident
From the subject's point of view, the PJ is a visual brain surgeon. They expect the PJ to be a knowledgeable, confident expert and everything to go smooth. Even if the camera bursts into flames, don’t freak out. If PJs freak, subjects freak and everything slides quickly downhill.

Likewise, if PJs are confident in their technical wizardry, the subject is happy and works with the PJ to make nice images. As we've discussed, we're working toward 100 frames. Consequently, there will be a few lens, lighting and scene changes during a portrait session. Use the subject's stress breaks to chimp a bit and tell the subject how well everything is going. They want to be reassured as much as possible. Say, "I've extracted the tumor and you'll be fine."

Explain issues before they happen
I know my bald scalp sweats a lot while I shoot with a tripod and my big strobes. It could be below freezing, and I'll sweat. Normally, I wear a boonie cap and it soaks up the perspiration. But I still explain this to the subject before I start setting up lights.

I explain that I'm making exposure calculations in my head, and I'll probably sweat. I also quickly add how light is measured in square roots and lenses are in cube roots and how everything comes out right to make the subject look "mah-velous." Then, the subject expects me to sweat and won't worry about my health or if I really know what I'm doing. It's expected and accepted.

Start wide and close
PJs know the first few frames are typically "warm-up" frames. These are the ones where the subject gets accustomed to the strange person who’s invaded their home or office with lights and tripods and other unknown objects.

Since these first few frames are often light tests and aren't expected to be the best shots, PJs can work this discomfort to their advantage. Explain to the subject what a wide angle lens is. Explain we can see all or most of the whole room, but it makes things look farther away than they really are. Next, explain how we need to set it really close to make the subject dominate the frame.

Then, set the tripod right next to them where their head fills the frame on the widest setting. Give the subject a moment to look at the camera. Then shoot to test the light level.

What just happened?

We built trust, we quickly moved inside their comfort zone and made an image. For the subject, the worst is over. From here, PJs can back away frame by frame and the subject relaxes with each step of distance. Even if PJs change to a 200mm, it won't appear as bad to the subject as the ultra-close wide-angle image. The subject looks comfortable and is relieved the PJ is further across the room.

It's often a mistake to start long and work to wide because the subject feels invaded as PJs get closer. The subject's body language shows this level of discomfort or irritation, which isn't what PJs want as shoots progress.

Sense of humor
If the PJ has a good sense of humor, use it. Subjects appreciate a little levity to lighten the mood while they're uncomfortable. I've found different accent imitations help get subjects to do what I need.

An Arnold Schwarzenegger impression gets football players to stand straight. A bad French accent gets folks to relax their hands. Thick Texas drawls, or any popular animated cartoon character voice (Crush from "Finding Nemo" is my favorite) amuses the subject. However, don't wear out any one accent. Switch them up so the subject knows you're doing your best to amuse them (and yourself).

It's always nice to hear, "This was fun," from a portrait subject when I leave. It means I did my job and put the subject at ease. No matter how the final image looks, the subject will probably like it because it was a fun break from their daily life.

Enough for now,

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Soften artificial light

Although beautiful, natural light is preferred, let's talk about making the best of what we get.

PJs use flash. Sometimes it may be our only light source other than stars. At other times, we may need to open up shadows within a scene (fill flash at noon). However, it can look artificial and harsh if not softened.

For PJs, even light with shadows within one to two stops of the highlights is considered "soft." Strong directional light with a three-to-one or greater ratio is considered "harsh." These designations have nothing to do with focus. It's only about the characteristic qualities of light.

The point of softening light is to scatter the light rays in various directions. This allows light to ease into areas which would otherwise remain underexposed (dark) if directional light is the primary source. In effect, it reduces the impact of highlight areas while filling the shadow areas. As such, it will typically create a reduction in the effective power and exposure of the flash (make appropriate GN deductions).

Point source light
Light refracts through the atmosphere, but generally travels in straight lines from a source. Unless the light is redirected by diffusion, refraction or reflection, it will lead to higher light ratios the further it is from the point source.

In real terms this means the difference between highlights and shadows (contrast) on a subject decreases the closer it is to a direct light source. Subject contrast will increase the further it is from the light source. This doesn't mean much to folks who are working with flash on camera (and red-eye), but it is significant for major lighting schemes.

Fall off
Disclaimer: "fall off" is technically the decrease of intensity of light from a point source. I may also use it to describe divergent or stray light particles because "pixie dust" has already been overused elsewhere. ;-}

The Inverse Square Law of Light states how light will work from a point source. If we think of a flash as a firehose, we can understand the closer we are to the nozzle, the harder the water will hit us. The further away we are, the less painful it would be.

We also understand that if we walk below the main stream of water, we'll still get wet from stray water molecules.

Directed light works similarly. If a flash is aimed directly at a subject, the subject will be brightly lit. The closer the subject is to the flash, the brighter the subject will appear in relation to surrounding objects.

Furthermore, light falls onto subjects like pixie dust near the main stream of light at a lesser intensity than those objects in the main path of directed light. Instead of drenching subjects in direct light, they can be moistened by stray light particles.

Tip in
PJs use these stray light particles to "tip in" light. The method uses the Inverse Square Law and fall off to more evenly distribute light. Tipping in light is best used with TTL (through the lens) metering, but the light can be manually metered or chimped and adjusted.

Instead of directing the flash at a subject, the light is directed above or beside the subject. The stray light particles pixie dust fall onto the subject while the main flow of light bypasses the subject and is subject to normal physics for the remainder of the scene.

The end result is a subject with similar light characteristics of the background. This method can be combined with other methods below to average and soften light for the entire scene.

Softboxes both scatter and direct light simultaneously. A softbox channels and redirects light through an opaque medium such as material or plastic. The end result is a portable, wide area of scattered light from multiple directions.

Softboxes are manufactured for both large strobe and hand-held flashes. Both are extremely valuable for light control.

Bounce card
A bounce card is a simple way to reflect and redirect light. PJs can purchase extremely expensive, pre-packaged items to attach to their flashes, but a folded photo assignment and a rubber band do the same darn thing.

PJs attach a white reflector (paper, cardboard, whatever) to the back of a flash where it extends beyond the flashhead. Ideally, it curves around the flashhead and the end pitches slightly forward to reflect more light.

Instead of the flash being the point source (for light calculations), the bounce card becomes the point source while scattering light more evenly across the scene. Because each reflecting medium has a different absorption rate, it's important to test various bounce cards to get proper exposures in non-TTL mode.

Regular bounce
PJs often bounce direct light off other objects to spread and redirect light. Occasionally it will be used to move light around other larger objects (bleachers, trees, beams, etc.), but it has the same softening effect.

Total distance
For exposure calculations, the cumulative flash-to-subject distance must be considered each time light is bounced. If the distance to a ceiling is three feet and the distance from the point on the ceiling to the subject is five feet, the flash-to-subject distance is eight feet (3+5 = 8). Again, different ceiling materials and colors (see below) will affect the actual exposure, but for a white or light cream ceiling, it should be close.

Color shift
An additional problem with bouncing flash is color balance. Different color surfaces get their color by reflecting only one color and absorbing other colors from white light. The same occurs when light is bounced off this surface.

White, cream and even some pale yellow surfaces don't do much harm to the overall image. In some cases, they are actually helpful. Red, green and some brown surfaces are a nightmare for final image color balance.

Do whatever's necessary, but keep this in mind while making lighting decisions. Occasionally an alternative lighting scheme is preferable (particularly with chrome film).

A reflector is a catch-all word for any mobile bounce surface. A photo umbrella and a folded piece of paper are both reflectors. The purpose of these items is to redirect (and typically scatter) light from the point source to the subject.

Most reflectors are neutral hues from white to black. However, gold reflectors slide in and out of vogue each few years.

Although PJs may purchase fancy spring-steel reflector discs and any number of other items targeted at "rich" photographers, an economical alternative is a silver windshield sunshade (they roll up). Likewise, a piece of cardboard with some aluminum foil and tape serves the same purpose.

Again, remember to calculate the total flash to subject distance when using any reflectors (flash to reflector + reflector to subject = total flash-to-subject distance).

Omni-Bounce diffuser
PJs seem to either love or hate the Omni Bounce diffusers. It's marketed as a product which creates a bare-bulb effect from a flash. Frankly, so does a cheap plastic drinking glass or small milk jug. I suppose it's hard to look cool with a milk jug on your flash. "Take me to your leader."

Nonetheless, it's a popular device for PJs who must work with flash on camera. It's not as harsh as direct light and allows for fairly wide light coverage by extending the point source a few inches and redirecting it outward from this point.

They make a green version for fluorescent color balance and a gold one for warming effects. However they don't seem to make a tungsten-balanced one, which is honestly beyond my comprehension.

Simple diffusers
These items are effective, but don't look as cool. Simple diffusers include handkerchiefs, wax paper, bubble wrap or any other semi-opaque diffusion materials. Recalculate the guide number for each new diffuser to ensure proper exposures.

Caution: Do not use flammable diffusers with powerful strobes or at least have a fire extinguisher handy.

Enough for now,

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

What is focus?

Let's consider focus. Focus is a basic tenet of photography. It's typically given a definition in photo books, but not fully explained.

The standard definitions of focus are: 1) The position at which rays of light from a lens converge to form a clear and sharply defined image on a focal plane. 2) The action of adjusting the distance between the lens and subject to make light rays converge to form a clear and sharply defined image of the subject.

These definitions are fine. But they're merely definitions of a unit without explanation of how it exists. If the PJ can't distinguish "sharp" from "soft," the PJ will always have a problem. Let's fix the problem.

If you're on the edge of your seat, please get a life. However, it's critical for PJs and advanced amateurs – especially when we discuss advanced issues. I'll try to boil quantum physics down to simple terms (as if gravity is simple), so cut me some slack on the comparisons. The point is to understand the general theory.

Focal point
Before we get too deep into the mechanical aspects of focus, let's understand where focus occurs. Technically, it's the point where rays of light converge. Each point of convergence is called a focal node. A set of focal nodes makes the focal plane. The focal plane is inside the camera body next to the film plane, which can occasionally be on an airplane. :-)

PJs need to know where these points occur for complicated issues. However, we'll generalize today. Few PJs actually care about the focal plane. It's a constant (until something goes wrong). The real concern for PJs is the "plane of focus."

Yes, they sound alike, but they're not the same. The focal plane is on the tripod and the plane of focus is somewhere between the lens and infinity. Techno-geeks made up the names or these would have edgy names like "the red zone." So, we're stuck with two drastically different, yet similar-sounding, concepts of focus. Live with it.

Circles of confusion
Sharpness is determined by the diameter of "circles of confusion." Those areas of an image with the smallest circles of confusion are said to be "sharp." Those areas of an image with the widest circles of confusion are said to be "out of focus." Near misses (and bad glass) are "soft."

The diameter of a circle of confusion is determined by many factors. Among these factors are aperture, the positions of lens elements within a lens, glass quality and subject distance (from the area of focus).

Even if the circles of confusion are tight and sharp when captured, they can be further degraded on an enlarger or in a scanner. Consequently, attention to detail must be maintained from image capture to the final output, or the image can lose enough sharpness at each step to make the final image weak.

Cone of light
Most folks have used a magnifying glass or other convex lens element to direct (refract) sunlight and burn symbols onto a leaf or piece of paper. Through this exercise, we learn the closer the lens element (magnifying glass) is to the substrate (a leaf or paper), the wider the circle of light is.

As a convex lens element moves away from the substrate, the circle of light has a smaller diameter. The circle continues to become smaller until it hits a rough focal point and the rays of light converge. After the focal point, the circles begin to grow in diameter again as the lens element moves further from the substrate.

We learn to adjust the distance of the lens element incrementally from the substrate to find the focal point. Once we find the focal point, the light rays converge and create intense heat in a specific location. Then, the heat burns the substrate. For most folks, this is considered to be the point of focus.

But it's not.

The leaf-burner has taken straight sunlight waves and used a single convex lens element to produce a cone of light. Somewhere near the tip of this cone, light converges enough to create adequate heat to burn the substrate. Without mechanical devices (measured in nanometers), true focus can't be consistently achieved this way. Focus is soft but effective.

Inside a camera, this point of convergence is along the focal plane. Light has been refracted through the lens elements of the camera and brought to a set of focal nodes along the focal plane. Even if the plane of focus (in front of the camera) is set at a position where nothing is visibly in focus, the focal plane is still accurate because it's calibrated and in a fixed position (unless the camera was recently dropped... off a cliff).

Plane of focus
We've established the focal plane is inside the camera at a fixed position. Next, we must understand the "plane of focus." We understand the plane of focus is an area between the front of the lens and infinity.

Therefore, this plane is obviously mobile. It is the area PJs generally call "focus" in a scene. It is the flat area within the scene with the smallest circles of confusion as determined by the PJ's placement of lens elements (definition two). Again, I'll avoid addressing the vast array of precision glass elements, electronic components, gears and very, very tiny squirrels inside the lens.

Hourglass of light
As the magnifying glass example shows, light directed through a simple, convex lens creates a cone of light leading to a finite point of convergence (a focal node). Once the light passes this finite point it again diverges.

Therefore, focus is the point (or node) of convergence between two cones of light. Visually, it's the pinch-point of a simple hourglass.

As sand can be controlled through hourglasses, light can be controlled through high-quality lenses these are the days of our lives.

An hourglass with a small opening and fine-quality sand (smaller particles) is most accurate. Likewise, a lens with a small aperture and fine quality glass (lens elements) creates the smallest circles of confusion and is most accurate.

Life is good so far. Now it starts getting crazy because light doesn't play by normal atomic rules. Light is both waves and particles. Furthermore, gravity doesn't affect it as much as other particles. Consequently, it reflects in all directions simultaneously and maliciously laughs at gravity.

So we must stop thinking about the sand and concentrate on the actual hourglass' shape. Furthermore, gravity no longer applies because PJs basically lay the hourglass on its side for photographic purposes and it still works fine.

I warned you.

If focus is the pinch point, the diameters of circles of confusion can be measured in relation to their proximity to the focus point. In other words, the further away from focus an image element is, the larger the circles of confusion are and the more out of focus it appears.

Eventually, the circles of confusion become so large and overlap so much that they become negligible (this is why the dust on the lens and blades of grass in front of the lens don't show up in the final image).

As the entire image is only a complicated pattern of overlapping circles, it's important to know where the smallest circles of confusion are. This area is focus.

Out of focus
So far, we've determined what and where focus is. It's the area with the smallest circles of confusion in a plane of focus somewhere in front of the lens. On future entries, we'll discuss how to make the plane of focus deeper through depth of field. But for now, we're trying to determine the actual area of focus.

To do so, we must identify what is not in focus or out of focus. With a good lens, something is always in sharp focus. However, it may not be placed exactly where the PJ wants or expects. Likewise it can be somewhere outside the viewing range within the scene.

Although everything outside of sharp focus is called "out of focus," PJs need to know the difference between out-of-focus and not-in-focus to understand the cause of a focus problem and how to avoid it.

While I wrote this, I attempted to address both manual and autofocus cameras. It would probably confuse some people. So, I'll save the autofocus discussion for another day. Let's just keep it simple and say this is a plain manual SLR camera with a plain manual lens in bright sunlight (to avoid the second definition of "soft").

Not in focus
PJs manually move the lens elements to an alignment by turning the focus ring of the lens. The PJ either uses a split prism to align objects at focus or uses her/his eyes to proximate focus on a ground glass viewing screen within the viewfinder (technically within the pentaprism).

When the PJ has the subject in focus, s/he presses the shutter release button and a latent image is recorded on film or disk.

However, when the film is developed, the PJ may notice the subject's eyes aren't in sharp focus. Instead, the subject's ear is in focus. The part of the frame expected to be in focus is "not in focus." The circles of confusion are larger than expected and another portion of the scene recorded the smallest circles of confusion.

Again, this is easily determined because some other part of the image area is sharply focused. Frequently, the word "soft" is used to explain this condition.

Out of focus
This happens for both manual and autofocus cameras for different reasons. Again, we'll only consider the manual focus explanation.

"Out of focus" occurs when nothing visible in the scene is in focus. Typically, this occurs when the lens elements align the plane of focus closer to the lens than any subject within the scene. It can also occur when the plane of focus is set behind the subject within the scene.

In both cases, the plane of focus simply is outside the range of the subject area and/or background. If any subject was visible where the plane of focus occurred, it would be in focus. However, in this case there is no portion of the scene aligned within the plane of focus.

We'll discuss the causes and remedies for both of these problems soon.

Enough for now,

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Have dark corners

We recently discussed image skeletal structure. The first step for a sound structure is to put something dark in all four corners - even if anticipating a crop. This creates a frame to hold the image together under any circumstance.

Most newspapers place a black border around images to mark each image's boundaries and separate it from other page elements. However, it's not wise to assume the borders always appear on the image.

If something goes wrong during pagination or paste-up, the image's dark corners hold the image together on the page and give the viewer some visual guideposts as to where the image stops and the page begins.

Many smaller black and white newspapers still make image halftones and do not use rule lines. This means all the white areas of a photograph "bleed" onto the page. At these publications, it's critical to put something dark in each corner. Otherwise, parts of the image simply float in a sea of words.

With fine art images, darker corners are almost required. Fine art pieces are frequently matted on white or museum board (cream). The mount almost dares fine artists to try Zone X near the edge.

At least PJs' mat boards are black. In college, I used gray board with a black core (very cool). Now, I have a super-special brass matt cutter with all the bells and whistles. I rarely use it, but someday...

How to make dark corners
Often, a look at the scene dictates what to avoid. Obviously, try to keep anything white or brightly lit areas away from corners and choose to put darker objects into the corners of the image.

Sometimes this may require PJs to crawl under a bush or frame the shot with some other foreground object. Another way to darken the corners is to pump-up the strobe a stop or two and drop down the ambient light (set flash to +1 and meter at -1 or greater).

Avoid afterimage work
Although it's possible and accepted practice to burn down corners or slide the curves in Photoshop, try to avoid it.

Instead, concentrate on making a good composition from the start and the image can go from the camera to the page quicker. Sometimes, there simply isn't time to work the image before delivery.

I'll save potassium ferricyanide treatments and W. Eugene Smith discussions for another day.

Enough for now,

Friday, November 12, 2004

Brace yourself

I’m working on some new posts for this blog. They’re dry and technical, but important. I’ll try to mix them up with some practical entries so everyone doesn’t run away.

Since I should get the new dit early next week, I’ll be able to illustrate some of the more ethereal theories. Hang in there kids.

Enough for now,

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Goose and windmill

A goose stands guard over smaller ducks at Bear Creek Park in Keller before the Run In The Dark 5K on Saturday, August 23, 2003.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

I started to use this image to show skeletal structure, but the other image was a far better example. However, notice how the goose's head separates from the sky while following the curve of the treeline. Likewise, it's chest contrasts with the shaded trees. Meanwhile, the ducklings blend into the grass when the viewer squints at the image and reduces the color saturation.

Suffering sticker shock

Wow. I bought a new Nikon D1H today. I'm sticker shocked.

After shooting film last week, it's obvious the world has changed too drastically to go back to "old school" ways.

When I was in school, I got my first Nikon professional camera from a pawn shop. It came with a body, speed winder, three lenses and a nifty imitation-leather carrying case. I got the whole deal for around $450. Today, I spent more on a camera body than I paid for my three previous cars combined.

Now I must make money with my camera, or I'll be doing first-person documentaries about homelessness. No pressure though. ;-}

On the brighter side, I'll soon be able to shoot examples specifically for this blog. When I find a new home, I'll still have the camera. So, it works out for y'all (blog readers).

Although this situation makes my stomach tight, I can see how it's helpful to my overall understanding of the PJ market (both freelance and staff). I'll tinker with some of the mainstream side markets (greeting cards, record companies, etc.) and see what they look like as well. I still plan to be a staffer again, so I'm using this time to build up some contacts and learn some new markets. I hope it'll be fun.

Enough for now,

Monday, November 08, 2004

Make strong skeletal structures

This image (top) is a good example of image skeletal structure. See how the elements are separated physically as well as tonally.

Note the importance of structural composition as color is removed (middle).

The lithographic final image (bottom) shows the skeletal structure of the image and how it's capable of transferring from color to B&W without major concern.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Notice: This entry is for advanced PJs. Pro PJs understand it. Most others might. Some won't. Don't fret. I'll fill in the missing gaps soon.

Each image has a skeletal structure. This structure is the framework of light and dark patterns within an image. PJs who start with black and white photography understand this theory faster than strictly color photographers, but it applies to both genres.

The goal of the skeletal structure is to keep items orderly and separate within a scene. Additionally, the structure leads the viewer's eyes to areas designated by the PJ.

What's a scene
Before we understand the visual structure of a scene, we must define what a scene is. A scene is any collection of visual information. A scene can generally be defined as a physical area where something occurs (a fire or police scene). It can also be defined as a view or fragment of the overall scene contained within the viewfinder or final image area (an image scene).

Since the viewer of photojournalism is limited to areas PJs choose to document, the final image is the most common definition.

Understand structure
The first step to understanding structure is to understand tonal gradations and how the dynamic range of light works. PJs must understand white can be black and black can be white. It simply depends on the amount of light reflecting from the object in relationship to other items in the same scene.

Once this initial concept is understood, PJs can visually arrange elements within the scene through the viewfinder. Light areas can be placed and contained within dark areas and vice versa until the best structure is accomplished. The goal is to separate or join items through the use of contrast and tonal gradations.

The areas reflecting the most light become the "bones" of the skeletal structure or the reverse can be true (for high key images). PJs then visually arrange these elements to keep viewers' eyes within the frame without letting other elements intrude into the scene or particular elements within the scene.

Highly-sophisticated structures may contain several light/dark patterns layered within one another in addition to spatial layers of depth.

See the structure
PJs must see structures and quickly assemble them into a logical, organized order. When PJs are covering a fire or a hostage standoff, it's not the best time to wonder what to do or the time to do the wrong thing.

There's several ways to preview a scene. I'll explain the classical approach first to avoid confusion (although it's arguably more confusing). PJs tend to use a personal variation of the final method for most news situations.

Preview button
Most SLR cameras have a depth-of-field (DoF) preview button on the camera body to the right (left as looking at the camera lens) of the lens mount ring. I'll soon explain hyperfocal distance (and depth of field) to dispel the myth about this button, but for today's discussion, it's a useful button.

SLR cameras open lens diaphragms to allow the PJ to view a scene through the maximum (widest) aperture setting of a lens. This allows the most light to travel from the scene to the PJ's eye regardless of the actual aperture setting.

For example, if the camera works properly, the PJ sees the scene at f/2.8 although the aperture is set for f/8. When the shutter release button is depressed, the camera moves the aperture arm and constrict the diaphragm to f/8 for the actual exposure. Then it returns to the maximum aperture setting as the mirror moves back into place.

To see the scene as the camera sees the scene, PJs depress the DoF button. It overrides the aperture arm and constricts the lens diaphragm to the set exposure (f/8). Without getting into the technical issues, the end result is less light travels from the scene to the viewfinder. The scene within the viewfinder becomes darker and objects within the general depth-of-field become more defined as the circles of confusion become smaller.

While the button is depressed, the tonal variances become more evident and color saturation becomes less relevant. As an example, a red apple on a green tree under even light becomes about the same shade of gray.

On B&W film without filtration, they'll be the same color gray because they're within the same tonal range of reflected light (although they reflect different wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum and are measured at different Kelvin temperatures).

Confused yet? Wait until I discuss calculus as it applies to artificial light and some of the other really exciting mathematical and scientific aspects of photojournalism. ;-}

For now, the PJ has the DoF button depressed and is looking through the viewfinder. Notice how differently the scene looks. The scene is broken down into light and dark areas because the eye can't fixate on objects separately. This is how the film or CCD also sees the scene.

The fastest and easiest way to see a scene's structure is to squint. Essentially, by squinting at a scene, PJs stop-down their eyes by reducing the amount of light entering the eye and break the scene into light patterns.

Did I hear a sigh of relief?

Most PJs have learned, either classically or through trial and error, how to see light patterns instead of the actual scene. They use variations of a squint to place foreground objects into contrasting background areas.

As the Moody Blues speak in "Late Lament,"
Cold-hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colours from our sight,
Red is grey and yellow white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.

Arrange the elements
Once PJs recognize light patterns within the scene, they arrange them within the viewfinder. On a simple image, the pattern is used to separate elements from one another or isolate one specific element from the surrounding elements.

Most frequently, a person's face is placed inside an evenly dark or light background element. PJs try to work foreground objects into background areas which are thrown off the dynamic range. This eliminates texture from the background and makes a "clean" background for PJs. Selective focus, lens choice, camera angles, and directional as well as artificial lighting further assist this goal.

However, the point is to bring some order to the chaos of most scenes. This is accomplished by arranging the scene elements into a solid skeletal structure.

Enough for now,

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Playing for keeps

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

L.D. Bell senior Emily Anthony (No. 12, bottom) tries to shovel the ball to a teammate while South Grand Prairie senior Marissa Coop (No. 14, top) dives for the ball during a girls basketball game in Coppell. South Grand Prairie won the game and remained in the title chase after a successful appeal to overturn six forfeit games.

I still like this shot even though it's a few years old. I like the way all the lines make a circle leading back to the ball, which is also a circle. It also shows the sacrifice the players are willing to make to win the game. It's obvious the girl on the bottom will be in pain momentarily, yet she's still trying to help teammates.

Award winner: Katie Finalist - Sports.


Saturday, November 06, 2004

How to shoot basketball

Instead of scattering example images within the text, please look at the last 20 images labeled basketball. Hit "back" on your browser to return to this page after viewing the examples.

Again, I'll avoid talking about remote strobes. So, we'll assume the game is played in an average-lit gym.

Basketball, like volleyball, will again show a PJ's technical weaknesses. Basketball is a game of speed, strategy, timing and physical action. Advanced teams will misdirect opponents (and PJs). Fast, long glass as well as a fast medium-to-wide angle lens are required as well as a monopod.

Basketball is a medium-contact sport. Bone-crushing images are rare. However, there is some tough physical action and hard hits onto the floor. It's fast, but players slow down while in the air, looking for a pass and during collisions.

At the same time, it's often played in poor light. At least the light is constant (if all the gym lights are working), so set the camera to manual mode metered for ambient light. Do whatever EV changes are required to get at least 1/250 shutter speed (if possible).

The game is played in a standard basketball gymnasium. Refs let PJs stand/sit/crouch along the bold exterior stripe of the basketball court. Some refs prefer to keep the padded wall directly behind the free throw lane (called the "paint") clear to allow players some room to fall. At professional games, this area is often reserved for television cameras as well.

Get the standard safe shots before the game begins.

For simplicity, we only have one local team playing this game. I'll refer to the subject team as "home" and the opponents as "visitors."

For new PJs, editors only want shots with a home-team focus unless otherwise stated (wire piggy-backs). It doesn't matter how great the visitors are, focus on the home team. Better images show both teams' faces, but focus on the home team's eyes first.

Like other contact sports, PJs want to capture conflict between the players of opposing teams. Shots with only the home team could be made during practice. The importance of shooting the game is to show the battle between two teams.

Work shots for publication first. Often these won't be published because they're a stepped-up version of safe shots. Each sport has its own variation of average shots (think a "C" on a college exam). These images might be great, but PJs are merely covering their rumps.

The tip-off
This shot is important and easy, but can be easily ruined. Each game begins with a tip-off. Generally, the tallest player from each team meets with the referee in the court's center circle. The ref throws the ball in the air, the players jump and ball control is immediately established.

To get this shot, PJs move to center court opposite scorekeeper and use a 200mm or other medium telephoto lens. PJs also switch to single-servo or manual focus. From a standing position, focus is placed on one of the two players about to jump. Then recompose the frame so the players' heads are in the frame's lowest portion. This is done to avoid the focus sensor locking on a fan in the stands while the action takes place on the frame's sides. Shoot slightly before the first hand hits the ball.

Get the coach
Switch back to continuous focus and move along the sideline to a point across from the home team's coach. As the game begins, energy levels are high for both teams. From a sitting or kneeling position, get some shots of the coach while s/he shouts instructions to her/his team and reacts to game action.

If the home team loses, these images still show a positive rather than a deflated coach. There's no reason to burn a local high school coach because his team was trounced by last year's national champions or an exhibition team.

Get the players
Always focus on the player's eyes instead of the ball. Each team has only five players on the court. There are, at most, 20 players on the whole team. They switch around a lot, but there's no excuse to miss a single player. These images can be used throughout the season if a player does something significant on or off the court.

Use a 200mm or 300mm lens from a sitting or kneeling position (because they tend to lean down). Get a tight shot of each player's face and shoulders – preferably with some action or emotion.

Stay on the sideline to shoot defenders as they face outward from the basket. Also get players as they bring the ball into play after being scored upon. Make sure to shoot from both sidecourts to get all the players.

Work free throws
After a foul, there's a free throw. The safest shot is of the free thrower (hopefully a home-team player). While standing under the goal (or to the side of the paint lines), use a long lens to shoot the player while s/he lines up the shot. The ball is chest high and the player looks up toward the lights. This allows a tight record shot with some tension. It has the ball, a clean background, better light and no armpits (a big problem in basketball).

When the home team defends, move outside the paint zone. Get low and shoot across the paint as the defenders initially block and then rebound after the final free throw.

Work passes
As the offense moves across center court, they tend to pass around the field goal (3-point) line. PJs position themselves near the corner to get these passes as they come toward the PJ. Because the ball moves toward the PJ and the passer is stationary, these are typically sharper images with less blur inside poorly-lit gyms.

A caution: not all basketball players catch the ball. PJs may get bonked in the lens/head. At least it's not a hockey puck.

Winners get the net
When a team wins important championships, it cuts down a net for its trophy case. PJs spot (or hide) an empty chair or ladder to get higher than the crowd (also see some of the advanced techniques for this shot). This allows PJs to get players cutting with the crowd in the background.

This "ceremony" may last a few seconds or be drawn out with each player cutting an individual cord and the coach making the final cut. If it's the latter, make sure to get each important player for future use, but the coach will be the critical image for today's paper.

Now it becomes important to understand the game. Roughly, teams try to get the ball into the opponent's hoop and prevent the opponent from doing the same. Some teams have good "outside shooters," who can make field goals. Other teams power inside for layups or dunks. Each type of team and player requires a different shooting position and lens choice. Quickly assess which is most likely with the home team to get the best shots.

It's important to have the ball in the frame. In both cases, get the ball on players' fingertips to make tighter frames. Capture the frame while players' wrists are strait or bent backward rather than after the ball has left their hands. Players typically put a backspin on the ball and will look – well – let's say the wrist won't look right if shot a millisecond too late. :-)

Additionally, one or two players on each team tend to score the most points. Know if they are right or left handed and how they prefer to approach the net. PJs want the player facing the camera. PJs line up on the hoop from the correct sidecourt. From a standing position, PJs use a long lens to get breakaway layups, dunks and outside shots from the center.

Even if the scorer's sideline is full, the PJ can get these players during the second half when everything is reversed.

Go wide for inside
Move to the baseline where the home team scores. Switch to a 50mm (medium) or wider lens and pan shots with inside plays as the home team tries to get to the hoop.

Unlike most other shots, these can be accomplished by hand-holding the camera from a standing position. Pan with (follow) the player with the ball while the camera is set on continuous focus. Because the lens is wider, exposures can be slower -- particularly in dark gyms.

Focus on the two home-team players nearest to the paint. Their backs are toward the camera but will quickly turn, fight forward to the net or suddenly fade back and shoot. Be ready for either. This often involves some physical play inside and often an attempt to pass around a defender.

Go long for outside
If the team shoots from the outside, use a long lens and be positioned on the baseline near the 3-point line to get a clear shot. These shots tend to be cleaner than most other images because the distance is greatest between the subject and the background. However, still be cautious about background elements.

Get some overhead views as well. These images depend on gym design. Some have catwalks (always leave camera vests/bags behind and tape the camera onto your hand with gaffer's tape). Some have observation decks over the basketball hoops (great for net shots). Most only have bleachers.

From the bleachers, align on the basket high enough to see inside the hoop. This shot also tends to be clean if the PJ is high enough. Since players look toward the basket, they also look at the PJ if the PJ is in the right location. Another advantage is this shot includes the players, the ball and the goal. This is the complete package shot – without armpits.

Sideline emotions
On important or evenly-matched games, skip the last point and focus on the home sideline for reactions. Before the game ends, move to the sidecourt and watch the teammates on the bench from a sitting or kneeling position. They'll ride an emotional roller coaster as the final points are scored. At a big game's end, they'll either jump or collapse.

On finals games, be ready to run. The editors (and competition judges) want to see a dejected player in the foreground with the jubilant team celebrating in the background. This means the PJ must circle around the losing players and align the winning team behind them. This lasts about 10 seconds.

These images are high risk. The likelihood of anything useful is minimal, but if it happens, the PJ looks brilliant at the editing desk. These are the “A” grade shots. Again, I stress not to try these until some publishable shots are already accomplished.

Shoot long, crosscourt
Break out the 300mm or 400mm. Sit on the visitor's backline corner. Shoot action at the opposite end of the court – particularly rebounds and reverse dunks. PJs have a camera with a 200mm in their lap to get the return action as well.

A really great shot has a player diving to keep the ball in play. Again, a PJ could shoot 100 games before even seeing this happen – much less catching it on film/CCD.

Get a steal
PJs sit at the center line position on the sidecourt and wait for an intercepted pass or outright steal. There's a split second of emotion on both players faces when this happens. PJs look for this emotional outburst rather than where the ball is located. The ball position looks the same as a standard game shot, the emotion tells the real story.

Shoot horizontal
Let's face it, basketball is a game of tall, skinny folks jumping up and down. As such, it's a vertical game. Most of the safe shots are vertical. This also allows the PJ to keep both eyes open to anticipate plays.

To kick everything up a notch, try to get tight horizontal shots, particularly on or near the floor. This is where the real fights for the ball take place. In tight games, look for one player to seize the ball and motion for a time out to retain ball control.

Remote cameras
Many pro PJs attach a remotely fired camera with a wide angle lens behind the backboard or long glass looking directly down on the hoop to get action as it comes to the net. These must be set up long before the game begins and be secured so thoroughly that it would be the only thing remaining after a major earthquake. Shake it, hit it, pound on the goal. If it moves at all, remove it. No shot is worth injuring the players or fellow PJs under the goal.

Pre-focus the lens slightly below the hoop, attach a Pocket Wizard or an internal FM remote and use it when a big play comes to the net.

An alternate, but less effective, way to accomplish a similar shot is to mount the camera on a monopod with a long plunger, electronic shutter release cord, or use an infrared or FM remote. PJs pre-focus and test the camera angles (with digital cameras and a ball head on the monopod). Then, they place the monopod base on their shoulders and follow action. This approach allows a slightly longer lens (50mm can occasionally work) to get a tighter shot. However, remember the PJ is shooting completely blind and may get nothing.

Other visual variety
Try layering some images. It's hard to accomplish at f/2.8, but it's possible. Shoot through people arms find other foreground objects in the stands or along the sidecourt to add some visual variety. Work murals or flags in the background.

Go into the catwalk with long glass and get super-tight shots as players approach the net. Again, take all safety precautions.

Next, try some of the "cool" things. Try a few panning blurs (slow-rear synch them if you can). Look around for anything reflective for surreal shots. Try a slow-shutter, double-action zoom as they move down the lane.

Outdoor, daylight games (3-on-3 tournaments particularly) allow silhouettes and other options most indoor games don't allow. It's up to the PJ's imagination and technical prowess.

Enough for now,

Friday, November 05, 2004

Senior Night kiss

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Skyline High School Chris Dace (No. 57, left) gives his mother, Michelle Goodson, a rose and a kiss during "Senior Night" before a football game against Carter High School at Forester Stadium in Dallas on Friday, November 5, 2004.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Graduate

Mrs. Robinson, played by Morgan Fairchild (right), talks to Benjamin Braddock, played by Nathan Corddry (left), in his bedroom during the opening scene of "The Graduate" at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas on Tuesday, November 2, 2004.

© Mark M. Hancock and The Dallas Morning News

Think small

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Zyvex CEO James Von Ehr thinks small. He thinks so small that it takes a Ultra High Vacuum Scanning Tunneling Microscope to see the nanotechnological things he creates at his Richardson-based company.

This is a loose photo mosaic. When I got the assignment, I was allowed to be "edgy" with it. I made some standard portraits in front of a huge machine, but we all preferred this approach. I had 15 minutes to make this particular image. I would have liked more time, but this worked for the story.

I planned to work on more of the large-scale images like "Donna," but the printer went out of business when everyone switched to digital. Now, I'll be stuck with huge negative contact sheets or chrome and glass sandwiches.

The big images take forever to plan and execute. They also cost a small fortune in film, processing and printing (when it was available). However, I want to explore them more and exploit the absolute layering this approach allows.

Enough for now,

Monday, November 01, 2004

Photographer punched and arrested at Florida poll

If you’re going to report on elections in Florida, take bail money and riot gear. The Palm Beach Post reports James S. Henry, an investigative journalist as well as a Harvard-educated lawyer and economist, was tackled, punched and arrested by Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy Al Cinque for photographing voters on a public sidewalk from a public sidewalk.

The Palm Beach Post reports,
"A sheriff's spokesman and a county attorney later said the deputy was enforcing a newly enacted rule from Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore prohibiting reporters from interviewing or photographing voters lined up outside the polls."

Apparently LePore, who invented the scrutinized butterfly ballot of 2000, is above the whole pesky Constitution thingy. Interestingly enough, she recently lost her re-election bid to keep her job. Although already defeated, she’s still "in charge" until Jan. 3, 2005. I can smell the lawsuits.

Enough for now,