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Lifestyle and Product Photography with Mombacho Cigars

Recently, I began shooting product and lifestyle photography for Mombacho Cigars. Mombacho is a Toronto based company that offers hand rolled Nicaraguan cigars. To date the management group has been fantastic to work with, and we are witnessing some great results. Here are a few early returns of my work with Mombacho, I am excited to continue my working relationship with them moving forward.

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Photographing an African Safari

This past summer I was fortunate enough to spend more than two months in Africa. During this time, we went on seven safaris throughout the continent, and had boundless opportunities to photograph wildlife. I learned a lot during this time about the proper methods of taking photos while on safari, and thought I would share my tips with the photography community. I hope that you find this tutorial useful, Africa presents a once in a lifetime experience for a photographer, and it pays to know what you’re doing.

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Planning the proper photography setup to bring on an African safari can be an arduous ordeal. Many factors have to be taken into consideration including budget, weight, and space in the vehicle. In this tutorial I will try my best to provide insightful information that will allow you to take those epic once in a lifetime photos without (totally) breaking the bank.

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I shoot with a full frame Canon 5D Mark II, but if you have a smaller camera body with an APS-C sensor have no fear, this can in fact work to your advantage on a safari where maximum telephoto range is of the essence. Many people forget that what you are viewing through a 1.6 lens factor crop body is actually 1.6 times the magnification of a full frame equivalent. In Lehman’s terms, this means that your 400mm lens is actually the equivalent of a 640mm range (400mm x 1.6) without the associated $12,000+ price tag! Don’t get totally caught up in epic tales of megapixels, this factor is vastly overrated in terms of producing quality images. Instead, allocate more of your total budget towards lenses, this is where you will see the difference.

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In terms of lenses, you want to buy a lens that offers the maximum telephoto range within your budgetary constraints. Many off market brands such as Sigma and Tamron have large telephoto equivalents to Canon, but as they are out of the range of my expertise I will discuss the Canons. I would recommend a lens with a magnification of at least 400mm for an African safari. Within this range there are three options, the 400mm f/5.6L, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, or the 400mm f/2.8 L IS II. Of course, the best overall lens is the f/2.8 for it’s superior low light performance, however, unless you have $11,000 kicking around you are likely limited to the first two. Although the 100-400 offers more versatility I would recommend the 400mm prime. It’s smaller, lighter (don’t underestimate this factor if you are traveling Africa as a backpacker and have to lug your own gear everywhere), cheaper, and offers greater image quality (this is marginal in my opinion, although as a rule of thumb primes are generally regarded to be optically superior to zooms). Remember that the animals on a safari are usually quite far away, and I can only think of a few instances where I wished I could zoom out to a lower magnification than 400mm.

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It’s also advisable to carry a midrange zoom in your kit (I use the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L, but the Canon 24-105 f/4L is also a great option) for landscapes and other shots that demand a wider angle. Many photographers opt to travel with a ton of lenses, but I prefer to try to limit it to two for space and weight purposes. Also, bear in mind that many safaris are extremely dusty, and constantly changing your lenses increases the chances of getting dust on your sensor, a surefire way to ruin your safari in a hurry!

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After buying your lens be sure to purchase a good UV filter. Why pay for high quality glass if you’re going to put a cheap filter on the end? Many amateur photographers think this makes no difference, but I can absolutely assure you that it does. I use only B+W filters, although others such as Heliopan are great as well. You may have to bite the bullet a bit with the initial price tag, but the good news is that many of Canon’s L series lenses have a 77mm thread, so the filters can be interchanged from one lens to the next. I also always carry a B+W circular polarizing filter and 8-stop ND filter. You never know what environmental situations you may encounter, and it pays to be prepared!

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In terms of stability, many photographers opt to bring along a monopod or tripod, especially as the animals are most active in the early morning and late afternoon when the low available light can be tricky for photography. One thing to bear in mind is that many of the safari trucks get packed beyond capacity, offering little room to maneuver, and you will not always have a place to set up your gear. Try getting creative, use the frame of the vehicle to support the tripod collar in order to avoid camera shake. Remember that to avoid producing a shaky image, you need to shoot at a shutter speed equivalent to or faster than 1/focal length (mm). For example, to get clear shots with a 400mm lens, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/400s (take this into account if you have an APS-C sensor body, with a 400mm lens you need to be shooting at 1/640s or faster, which can be very difficult to attain handheld in low light!)

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I prefer to shoot my images in manual mode, but bear in mind that the animals are wild and are not often inclined to hold poses for photographers. If you aren’t comfortable shooting in full manual, use aperture priority and set your aperture as wide open as possible. As with any form of photography, shoot at the lowest possible ISO in order to produce a crisp, clean image. I would always advise to focus on an animal’s eyes when taking the shot. Particularly when blowing up images, if the eyes are not in focus it will drastically affect the overall quality. At times your auto AF sensors will have trouble detecting this area, particularly if the animals are concealed in grass or foliage. I recommend learning how to set manual AF points on the fly, this will help to track the portion of the sensor you wish to focus on with minimal frustration.

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Most importantly, get creative! Anyone can go out and shoot an animal on a safari, but how can you differentiate your images from the thousands of others produced? One method is to watch the animal’s behavior for a while before shooting. Oftentimes you will notice tendencies or movement, and be able to utilize this to your advantage in order to anticipate a shot that the others in your safari will miss out on. Also, be sure you understand how to work your camera and change settings quickly. I can’t tell you how many people I have seen with expensive gear and no clue how to use it that end up having a disappointing time, as they are unable to set up their camera settings properly in a timely manner. Go outside and practice in your neighborhood until you feel comfortable with all of the essential features of your camera. Above all, have fun! You are on the trip of a lifetime, make sure to get those amazing photos, but also step back and reflect on the incredible experience from time to time. I assure you that you won’t regret it.

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Colourful Water Droplet

Water Drop Photography Tutorial

As a result of the positive feedback I received from my smoke photography tutorial, I have gone ahead and conducted a second tutorial, this time for water drop photography. As with smoke photography, water drop photography can easily be done using a cheap DIY setup and only requiring a few essential items. Here is one of the final images I have selected.

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What I Used:

  • Canon 5D Mark II with EF 24-70 f/2.8L lens
  • Tripod to ensure stability while shooting a series of images
  • Canon Speedlite 430 EXII set remotely off camera
  • Flash trigger
  • Old paint tray filled with water to capture the water drops and create the splash effect
  • Small clear bag filled with water
  • Piece of white and orange bristol board to bounce the flash off
  • Towel and lens cloth (my first effort resulted in the bag dropping from three feet, thus soaking everything in the room)
  • Safety pin
  • Pen
  • Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6 for post-processing

Setup:

  1. Fill the paint tray and bag with water. Hang the bag about three feet above the paint tray. I used a light stand on some boxes to hang the bag, but anything will suffice that keeps it stationary.
  2. Set up the camera on a tripod approximating where you estimate the drops will land. Zoom in as close as you can while still allowing your AF to properly detect focal points (especially if you aren’t using a macro lens).
  3. Set up the bristol board behind the paint tray, and place your flash so that the light will bounce off the board. I began with a white piece of bristol board, then switched to orange partway through (explanation below). Do not illuminate the water directly.

Here is what my setup looked like:

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Taking the Photo:

  1. Get your camera and flash ready. As usual, settings will vary by preference, but for a reference I used manual mode with ISO 100 (reducing noise), f/8.0 to get a sharp image, and a shutter speed of 1/200s. I set the flash at 1/8 power in manual mode.
  2. Put a small prick in the bag with a safety pin. Make the hole small, or water will emerge in a stream rather than a steady drop.
  3. Once the water starts to drop, place a pen in the location where the drops are hitting the water in the paint tray. Use this as a reference point for your AF. Once properly focused, switch your lens to manual focusing.
  4. Turn off any overhead lights and start shooting. Take as many photos as you want, the more you take the better chance you have of keepers.
  5. Note: switching the bristol board affects the colour of reflective light. With white you have a more neutral cast, orange an orange cast, etc. You can adjust many of these settings in Photoshop, but I prefer to do as much work in camera as possible.

Post-processing:

To be honest, I did not conduct a lot of post processing for these images (again the benefit of achieving the desired result in camera). Adjusting the white balance in RAW allows you to create a variety of colour casts, and of course cropping is essential to emit unwanted areas. Be careful not to adjust the clarity sliders too high, as noise and artifacts can be a major issue with these photos, even with ISO 100. In PS try toying with various Hue/Saturation colours to create some neat effects. Below are a couple of more shots from this session

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Water drop photography is a creative project with the potential to yield amazing results, perfect for a cold winter day. I hope this post encourages you to experiment, and always push yourself to take your photography skills to the next level. For any further information please e-mail me at travisdanielallen@gmail.com.

Smoke Coffee

Smoke Photography Tutorial

In order to beat the winter blues, I have been delving into more abstract photography using a basic DIY home studio setup. Smoke photography is a unique and creative form of photography that is quite easy to conduct with the right equipment. First, we will begin with our final photograph:

Coffee

What I used:

  • Canon 5D Mark II with EF 24-70 f/2.8L lens
  • Tripod to ensure stability while shooting a series of images
  • Canon Speedlite 430 EXII set remotely off camera
  • Flash trigger
  • Incense to generate smoke
  • Black piece of bristol board for backdrop
  • Table lamp
  • Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6 for post-processing

Setup:

  1. Set up the bristol board on a wall so that it will cover the background where the smoke is emitted.
  2. Place the incense about one foot away from the wall (don’t light the incense immediately unless you want to risk being smoked out of your apartment).
  3. Set up the lamp about a foot away (depending on the amount of light, this can be adjusted as you go) at either the 3:00 or 9:00 position relative to the incense.
  4. Set up the flash on the opposite side of the incense from the light source (remember that you need a way to trigger it remotely, either wireless or wired like mine). Put black flaps onto the sides of the flash so that no light is spilled onto the backdrop (this is not depicted in the photo below, but I used scotch tape to attach sections of bristol board onto the side of my flash, no one said it had to look pretty).
  5. Set up the camera on a tripod so that the top of the incense is in the lower part of your frame. This will allow you to focus on capturing the smoke, as the incense stick will be edited out of your photo later anyways.

Essentially this is what your setup should look like (horrible photo taken with my shitty camera phone):

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Taking the Photo:

  1. Now that you are ready to go, light the incense and turn on the table lamp. This should be your primary light source, and you can turn off any overhead lights at this time.
  2. Set the flash to 1/16 power to begin, you can adjust it accordingly.
  3. Camera settings are up to you. For a guide, I put my camera in manual mode, set the ISO at 400, f/8.0, and a shutter speed of 1/200s. I also HIGHLY recommend (as always) that you shoot in RAW mode. This will grant you far more flexibility when it’s time to post process.
  4. Focus your lens on the tip of the incense, then switch the lens into manual focus. This will prevent your lens from readjusting as you go.
  5. Start shooting! This is the fun part, so get creative. Gently blowing on the smoke creates an array of unique patterns.
  6. When you feel happy with the shots you have, you are finished.
  7. Optional: at this point, I decided that I wanted to use a stationary object (the espresso cup) in my image. I shot a series of simple static images that I would use as my base for post processing. This allows the image to gain a bit of context, and I recommend using an object of sorts to create the illusion of the smoke emitting from a source.

Post-processing (Disclaimer: in this section I am assuming the user has a functional knowledge of Adobe RAW and Photoshop. If you don’t, and would like a more detailed explanation please email me at travisdanielallen@gmail.com):

  1. Open the image in RAW. At this stage I only adjusted contrast and shadow sliders in order to minimize the white areas surrounding the smoke.
  2. Import your smoke image into Photoshop. Here you can use a black paintbrush as your foreground colour in order to paint out any areas that you wish to hide in your final image.
  3. Import the photo of the cup (or other object) into Photoshop following a similar series of adjustments.
  4. Use to Move tool to align the layers so that they will form a cohesive image when you use your layer mask.
  5. Use layer masking with the cup as your background layer, then fill the layer mask with black and use a white brush to bring the image of the smoke into your background image.
  6. In order to create the colour combinations of the smoke, simply adjust the Hue/Saturation sliders. There are plenty of other post processing options at this stage, get creative!
  7. As you can see, my image features two coffee cups. At this stage I selected a different smoke image and followed the steps above. I used the same image of the cup to create a uniformity to the final photo. Simply create a new canvas which mirrors the height of your image but doubles your width, then drag (after unlocking the layers) both images onto your new white canvas, to create the final photograph.

That’s all there is to it! I hope you have found this tutorial helpful. Any comments (positive or negative) are always welcome.

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Africa Revisited

It’s hard to believe it’s been four months since we returned from Africa. Recently I sat down and revisited some of the photos that hadn’t caught my eye the first time around. I would encourage all photographers to make a habit of this, you never know what may catch your eye the second time around. This post features a number of shots taken throughout Africa that I hope tell a story, that make you think a little deeper about the image. As always I welcome any feedback, and I hope you enjoy.

TAllen-2013-08-18-4465 as Smart Object-1Victoria Falls shot from an aerial view in a helicopter.

TAllen-2013-08-17-4411Victoria Falls as seen from the ground using an ND filter for the long exposure.

TAllen-2013-07-30-3651The last of the great wildebeest migration from Tanzania towards Kenya.

TAllen-2013-07-30-3579Beautiful Ngorongoro Crater at first light.

TAllen-2013-07-19-3148The inspiring Little Angels Orphanage.

TAllen-2013-07-22-3253Roadside in Kampala, Uganda.

TAllen-2013-08-16-4305“I don’t know, what d’you want to do?”

TAllen-2013-09-03-5674The Milky Way is more beautiful in the southern hemisphere.

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TAllen-2013-07-19-3126A lifetime of love.

TAllen-2013-07-16-3095Masai women ready for a dance.

Commercial, Fine Art, and Event Photography in Toronto, Ontario

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