If you find yourself in a creative rut or you just want to think about taking photographs differently, check out Lensbaby's line of lenses, optics, and accessories.  The "Lensbaby Effect" is generally considered as a sweet spot of focus surrounded by progressively strong blurring.  Ironically, this is not unlike how humans actually perceive the world, as opposed to planes of focus like what you get with traditional lenses.

Lensbaby System

The Lensbaby product line is quite diverse and complimentary.  Recently, Lensbaby has done a great job of increasing the quality of their optics and build of their lenses.  They've gone from less serious in performance and build, like the original Lensbaby lens, to legitimate, hard-working tools, like the Composer Pro.  Where there was once simply a plastic optic housed in a plastic, articulating accordion-style body now there are high-quality, multi-coated optics comprised of many glass elements with integrated aperture blades housed in metal ball-and-socket lenses with focusing rings.  And with the introduction of the Edge 80 optic we might have to rethink what the "Lensbaby Effect" really means as this new lens doesn't have a sweet spot but instead a slice of focus that you manipulate and move about.  Indeed, the Edge 80 isn't the first Lensbaby lens without a sweet spot of focus - others without are the Fisheye optic, Pinhole/Zone Plate optic, and the Soft Focus optic.

Lensbaby's latest two lenses do not have drop-in aperture rings either, which were the norm for previous optics.  Instead, the Edge 80 and the Sweet 35 have integrated 12-bladed apertures similar to traditional lenses.  Unlike traditional lenses, however, you still have to manually dial the aperture setting as there is no communication with the lens and your camera.  Usually, when you look through the viewfinder you are looking through the lens with its aperture set to its widest and when you press the shutter, the instant before the picture is taken, the camera quickly stops the lens down to the target aperture setting.  This means when you look through the lens the image is the brightest it can be, which aids in focusing and composing.  However, manually set apertures, like the Lensbaby, means if you focus and compose with the aperture already stopped down it may be hard to see in the dim viewfinder.  This can make focusing difficult.  If you are using a tripod you can compose and focus first then insert/adjust the aperture before calculating the exposure and taking the picture.

Those with full-frame cameras have an advantage when dealing with manual lenses as the viewfinder is much larger than with crop cameras.  Larger viewfinders make finding focus easier.  Make sure your diopter is properly adjusted for your eyesight.  Your camera's autofocus system doesn't need the diopter to be exact to accurately pinpoint focus, but your eyes sure do!

If using Lensbaby lenses with a Canon, Sony, or Pentax camera, set the camera to Aperture Priority mode and manually adjust the desired aperture.  The camera should come up with the proper shutter speed.  If it doesn't it should be close and you can fine tune the result with a bit of exposure compensation.  Live View will offer the most accurate metering and couple it with the zoom to focus.  If you shoot Nikon the camera will probably have to be set in manual mode.  Use the integrated meter to adjust exposure and fire some test shots.

Christmas Angel, Lensbaby Composer Pro with Double Glass optic and heart-shaped aperture disk

The downside to the new integrated aperture blades is that you cannot use custom aperture shapes like what's available in the Creative Aperture Kit.  The above image was a concept I thought might work well for a Christmas card cover.  I ended up going with something different for the family card but I was satisfied with the effect of the heart-shaped lights - it struck the holiday mood I was going for.

More Hearts, Lensbaby Composer Pro, Sweet 35 optic, f4.0, 1/160 sec., ISO 200, -.7 EC

It's a good rule to not rely on the Lensbaby to "save" an image - ideally, the image should be able to stand on its own without the selective focus and blurring effect.  Done right the Lensbaby should enhance an image. 

Lensbaby Composer Pro with Sweet 35 toptic, f2.8, 1/125 sec., ISO 6400

The dramatic blurring effect can surprise you. Often you can get unexpected results with the highlights deep into the blur region.  These are strings of Christmas lights wrapped around wire reindeer.  The appearance of the subjects become more and more surreal, becoming simply suggestive by the time they reach the edge of the frame.

I find myself primarily using three of the optics most - in no particular order, the Double Glass, Sweet 35, and Edge 80.  I use the Double Glass instead of the Sweet 35 for a more normal field of view, it's roughly a 50mm optic, and when I want to use creative apertures.  I probably use the Sweet 35 the most as I really like the quality of sharpness in the sweet spot, especially at f4 plus.  Don't stop down too far, however, or you'll get less intense blurring.  I use the Edge 80 for portraits for its compressive focal length and high quality optics.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to shooting with the Lensbaby system is it forces you to think differently.  With traditional lenses you manipulate a plane of focus back and forth from the sensor.  Lensbaby lenses and optics are predominantly about moving a sweet spot around the image.  However, with the Edge 80, Lensbaby's most popular non-sweet spot lens, you are forced to consider an extra axis of movement and focus (most similar to the tilt feature on tilt/shift lenses).  It's an exercise in alternate creative expression, if not creative freedom. 

For pixel-peepers, unrestrained by the shackles of MTF charts and the chains of critical sharpness, Lensbaby may be your ticket to rediscovering the magic of enjoying the image for the image's sake.


The eBay Beauty Dish

A rather recent phenomenon, the beauty dish has made quite a large name for itself in glamour, fashion, and portraiture photography.  This simple modifier can create complex lighting effects that tend to be harsher than softboxes yet softer than direct flash. 

I've become something of a lighting modifier junkie so luckily for me there exist stores located in China who sell all manner of modifiers, in decent quality at exceptional prices.  This last bit is key - there are countless types of light modifiers which all do very specific things to light and playing with them all could cost a Scrooge McDuck-type fortune.  The Chinese vendor, Studio-98, offers a large selection of mid-quality photography accessories at prices that can't be much more than material cost.

Studio-98 Beauty Dish and accessories

Studio-98's Beauty Dish kit is comprehensive.  While many sellers offer beauty dishes and beauty dish accessories, the Studio-98 kit includes just about everything you'd want in one economical package.  It contains a 22" stamped aluminum beauty dish (in either white or silver), 3 center deflectors (in white, silver, and gold), 3 white diffusion socks, 30 degree honeycomb grid, and a mount of your choice (extra charge may apply).  At the point of checkout you have the option to include, for $19, a handy carry and storage bag.  Consider picking up the bag now since apparently Studio-98 does not sell it separately.  It's also well made and offers a slot to store and protect the delicate honeycomb grid.  The bag will allow you to conveniently manage all the little bits in this kit.  It won't be easy to find another storage solution as capable as this for less than $20!

As mentioned, there are 2 flavors of beauty dish available (4 if you count the 16" model), white and silver.  I chose the silver version as I wanted maximum specularity.  White beauty dishes tend to create a softer light, where the shadows fall off in a smoother way.  Besides, you'll always have the option to sock the dish which can go a long way in softening the shadow transitions.

Flash Shoe Bracket

You can choose a mounting style from a long list of supported standards, like Elinchrom and Profoto speedrings or flash shoe mount bracket, to name some.  Since I shoot Canon 600EX-RT's I opted for the shoe bracket.  It's nice to know that my investment will not become obsolete if I choose to migrate to a Profoto kit - I would just pick up the available Profoto mount and keep on rocking this beauty dish.  The shoe mount bracket has a shoe to hold the flash and another to mount a trigger, like a PocketWizard.  Since moving to 600EX-RT with their integrated radios, I have nothing to populate the second shoe, but those of you still living in the stone age will appreciate this thoughtful inclusion.  (Okay, admittedly, it's more like the bronze age.)

I'm not overly impressed with the fit and finish of the bracket.  The dish mounting ring is secured to the bracket by two small screws and there is just not enough surface area at the meeting point.  When you mount the dish and its substantial weight comes to rest, it will bend slightly at this point.  I can only imagine that over time, with bustling about a shoot or outside in the wind, this could become a real problem.  I'll be looking into ways to fortify the bracket there.  Also, the whole assembly isn't centered.  My bracket sits off to the left of center and I see no easy way of bending back in line.  However, apart from what was mentioned earlier, the rest of the bracket is robust and solid.  Oversized knobs allow for making adjustments and retightening a breeze.

Notice the down rail that raises and lowers the beauty dish relative to the bracket?  It sticks down pretty low in the picture above, which is sized up for a 600EX-RT Speedlite.  The rail will bottom out on the bracket before the dish would bottom out on the flash stand, so soft box solutions like the Manfrotto 042 Extension Arm, Paul C. Buff Baby Boomer, and the like might not allow for any more downward movement.  Still, you do get a decent range of motion, but if you want more perhaps you could shave off the excess.  With a flash stand boom I don't think this would be a concern, and without a boom only rarely.

Bare Beauty Dish, 1/4 Power

Socked Beauty Dish, 1/4 PowerBeauty Dish with 30 Degree Grid, 1/4 PowerBeauty Dish with 30 Degree Grid and Sock, 1/4 Power Westcott Apollo Orb, 1/4 Power

Above is the output of some of the configurations you can do with this, or any, beauty dish.  I included a Westcott Apollo Orb 43" soft box for comparison.  Those are quite varied output profiles from essentially one modifier in your bag. 

I find the Studio-98 Beauty Dish easy to setup and use.  The included socks won't win any awards but you get 3 of them in case one blows up on you.  They are, after all, single stitched and made of thin material.  But they work and work well.

If you are looking to get a well-made, aluminum beauty dish on the cheap, I recommend the one sold by Studio-98.  Compared to other 3rd party solutions, like the Kacey Beauty Reflector, the Studio-98 is of comparable quality, yet much more economical.  Compared to first party solutions, like the ProFoto Softlight Beauty Dish, the dish itself may not be as robust or last as long, but you could buy 3 sets of the Studio-98 Beauty Dishes for the price of the ProFoto and that's before you accessorize with grids and socks!

Compared to a traditional soft box the beauty dish can be more of a pain to lug around (consider again getting the optional bag!) as soft boxes, especially umbrella-styled, are far more packable and portable...

85mm, f2.0, ISO 100, 200 sec, Canon 600EX-RT with Studio-98 Beauty Dish, 30 degree grid and sock

...But the quality of their light is, ahem, beautiful.  And you can't beat perfectly round catchlights!


Recommended Android Apps for Photography

Coming over from the iPad I was familiar with the apps designed to aid photographers on iOS. Google's platform, however, was a little different because some apps didn't have Android versions and what was available many times did not have long review histories. Choosing Android apps was hit or miss and often left you checking to see if you were still within the refund window.

These days the Google Play market is much more mature and it's easier to find something worth downloading. The quantity of quality Android photography apps is easily on par with what's available on iOS, and in some cases, like those apps which can directly control your camera, quite a bit superior.

Here is a list of Android apps worth your dollar(s):

The Photographer's Ephemeris

This is the cat-daddy landscaper photography app. The Photographer's Ephemeris let's you plan a shot by showing how light will fall on a scene at a given time. If you want to know where and when to stand to be best positioned for sunrise this is the app to check. It integrates Google Maps and uses GPS for accuracy. There is no better map-centric sun and moon calculator currently on the market.

The Photographer's Ephemeris was even used recently to debunk a photo contest winner that was later found to have violated a prestigious contest's rules.

DSLR Controller

This app may be most responsible for Canon users choosing the Android platform to begin with. DSLR Controller directly controls your Canon camera, allowing you to view Live View on your 10" screen (or 4.5" smartphone screen, whichever floats your boat).

You have control over shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focus, etc., from your Android device. This is great for when the camera is positioned in such a way that makes it difficult to see the viewfinder or the screen. There are even intervalometer and bracketing controls!

See the program link for a full list of impressive features.

Tip:  If you are having connectivity issues a common cause is the On The Go USB cable. There are many cheap OTG cables that cause communication errors and freezing. Try a different USB host cable.  Also, check the developer's website for compatability with your hardware.

There are now similar apps that also support Nikon cameras, like the very popular Helicon Remote, so don't fret if you shoot on that platform.

Photo Mate Professional

Photo Mate Professional is an image viewer and editor that lets you work with RAW files, be they CR2 (Canon) or NEF (Nikon). You can even use Photo Mate to calibrate your tablet's display or run a portfolio slideshow.

Apps like this are essential to the mobile workflow. There aren't many editors on the market that let you work in RAW and we're lucky there is a very good one in Photo Mate available. It's a little pricey for an app, with cheaper versions you can choose that omit features like image editing, but the Professional version is worth the money.

Android Photo Review

If you are looking for something light that can help with culling images after a shoot Android Photo Review might be all that you need. It's a simple browser that is compatible with most RAW formats. Android Photo Review let's you browse your compact flash card and star images for future editing. You can even view histogram information to aid with rating images.

As with the entire Asus Transformer line, my Transformer Prime has access to the Transformer dock which adds a full sized USB port (among other useful things). I attach a USB card reader, insert my compact flash card, launch Android Photo Review and browse the images on a large 10" screen without having to waste time transferring images to the tablet - Try that, iPad users. When I'm done I can put the card back into my camera and the ratings are preserved within the images.


With the release of the 5D Mark III Canon added a feature that was previously only available in the flagship 1D lines - dual card slots. One slot is compact flash and the other SD. The latter is important in that it gives you native access to Eye-Fi's clever wi-fi SD cards. (The Canon 5D is even one of the first cameras to be "Eye-Fi certified." When an Eye-Fi card is inserted and detected a menu option becomes available, giving you some control over the card.)

When setup, you can wirelessly connect your camera to the tablet and watch the images pop up on the screen as you take them. This is perfect for model shoots or any shoot where you want to instantly review the images without relying on the camera's 3" LCD screen to do your chimping.

I set the Canon 5D Mark III to send full sized RAW images to the compact flash and S2 JPEGs (one notch above the smallest file size possible) to the SD card. S2 gives adequate resolution for checking focus yet keeps the files size small enough that sending the pics wirelessly doesn't slow the process down to a crawl. It's the preferred quality/speed compromise.

One more tip for Canon 5D Mark III shooters: Put "Record func+card/folder sel" in your My Menu for quick control over the two cards. This will let you choose which card to read/write to and browse. Remember, when you format one card you have to manually switch to the other card to format it as well. If you shoot video, double check that the CF card is set to primary. Diligent management of the two cards will mean you only have to import one of them at the end of the day.

Photo Tools Pro

There are many apps that offer calculators beneficial to photographers, like DOF and exposure calculators, but Photo Tools Pro includes the most. They are also quality calculators. For instance, the exposure calculator figures out shutter reciprocation which is very handy for those long 10-stop exposures.

In one app you have fingertip access to an FOV calculator, flash exposure compensation calc, rudimentary light meter, gray card, time lapse calculator, timer, stopwatch, moon phase calc, weather forecast, color wheel and temperature charts, sharpening radius estimator, note pad, and even a gallery for inspiration, to name a few.

Photo Tools Pro is at home on both your tablet and smartphone. There is an ad-supported free version available, but consider the donation version to better support the developer.

Geotag Photos Pro

For those who don't have geotagging accessories, like the $250 Canon GP-E2, but do have a smartphone, Geotag Photos Pro lets you geotag your images without the hassle of managing more gear.

Launch the program, set the update interval (I usually set it to update every 5-15 minutes) and put the phone back in your pocket. When you're done, stop the logging to conserve battery power. When home, browse to the Geotag Photos site to merge the GPS log data with your photos. Lightroom and Aperture will now plot the images on a map.

Tip: Android phones are notorious for zapping battery life. Running power intensive apps in the background, like Geotag Photos Pro, exacerbate the problem. To ensure that you have adequate juice consider packing an extra power source. I recommend the Sanyo Eneloop Mobile Booster. (I have the KBC-L2B version) It's 5000mAh of extremely portable trip saving power from one of rechargeable battery's most revered brands. You'll probably have to import it from Korea as it is no longer available for sale in America, though eBay has many Korean sellers who export and include the proper North American power plug adapter. It has enough to recharge both your phone AND tablet on one charge.

Posing App

Posing App is a great collection of 244 poses to help inspire you and your model. You don't realize how difficult it is to come up with complimentary poses until you try. When time is critical (when isn't it?) it helps to have examples to instruct a subject.

There are several posing image collections available but I think Posing App has the deepest and varied collection of quality poses. There are even tips with each pose to help with model instruction. Your mileage may vary but it's worth a look. For a few dollars more you can unlock the glamour set which adds 56 "glamour" poses.

Here is a list of some other apps you may want to investigate.

  • Easy Release - Model Releases - Be aware that there is a lot of controversy regarding the legal value of digital model releases. Physical signatures are the most safe, but digital releases are far better than nothing.

  • Remote Release - Trip your shutter with your phone tethered with the same OTG cable you use for DSLR Controller.

  • Android Photo Backup - Backup your images to your tablet or smartphone. With the proliferation of expandable memory on Android devices why not ditch your portable hard drive and use your tablet? That would be one less thing to carry, and viewing images on a 10" screen beats the bejeezus out of viewing them on your 3" HyperDrive Colorspace.

  • Lighting Studio - Record your lighting setups for quick and accurate recreations.

  • Instagram - For when you don't want to work at it.



Complementary Colors

When looking for interesting subjects to photograph one should consider the importance of color in the final image.  Smart juxtaposition of complementary colors can do a lot to enhance any scene and give an image an extra pop.

Color Wheel

Way back in 1666 Sir Isaac Newton created the first color wheel, meant to help pick colors that were harmonious with each other.  His were a basic 12 colors derived from the RYB color model.  There have been many changes to the color wheel since the 17th century but the basic principles still apply - For color harmonies (or chords), pick a color and its harmony color will be on the opposite side of the wheel.

Just looking at the above wheel you see why red roses in green bouquets are so visually striking!  Red and green are complementary colors.

The color wheel gives us a tool to visualize many color strategies.  For instance, analogous colors are a series of colors that sit next to each other on the wheel.  Red, orange, and yellow would be analogous.  Using analogous colors imparts a calm sense to the viewer.  This contrasts with complementary colors (opposite on the wheel) as complementary colors, when used to extremes, can become quite dramatic and exciting.

Obviously, orange and blue are important complementary colors for landscape photographers because of the ever present blue sky.  (An orange sun beset in a sea of blue can already give the image a leg up even before a main subject is taken into account.)

Pennybacker Bridge (Austin, TX), Canon 5D Mark III, 17-40mm @ 20mm for 6.0sec, ISO 400, RRS Nodal Slide and Panning Clamp, 7 images (click for larger)

For the above image the cars screaming by left headlight trails that nicely complemented a blue sky that already had a bit of orange as the sun set.  The use of a nodal slide allowed me to take this 7 image pano without line tearing towards the bottom of the frame as the guard rails would require more post work to correct without proper nodal point rotation.

As a side note, in my haste to capture this image before the sun went away completely, the camera stayed in aperture priority.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, when creating a pano it's best to shoot in manual mode so that changes in light across the frame don't alter exposure in the middle of the series.  Predictably, my final images had a range of multiple stops of shutter speed (2 stops to be exact), dramatically altering exposure and sky consistancy across the composite image.  To rectify this I chose a base exposure (generally this base exposure will be the image's exposure at the center of the pano) and adjusted the exposure slider in Lightroom to counter any image's exposure that deviated from that base exposure.  For instance, if the base exposure is 4.0secs at a given aperture you would slide the exposure up 2 stops for an image that was shot at 15secs.  The moral of this side note: Shoot panos in manual mode.

Using the color wheel as a guide and understanding the relationship of the colors it represents can greatly enhanced the impact of your images.

Flashing In Front of the Capitol

A client wanted to revamp the photos on his website with specific instruction that I incorporate the Texas Capitol Building in the background.  There were no clouds in the forecast and it was expected to be quite warm - This is August in central Texas after all.  Immediately I knew I was going to have to solve two problems for the image to be a success.  One, control that overbearing sun and two, come up with some way to frame the Capitol Building without having the negative space of a cloudless sky dominating the image.

I like to pack light where I can.  Well, I like to pack as little weight as I can get away with.  (I'm going to pack a light, obviously.)  Canon recently released an update to their top-end flash, the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT, with the headlining feature being an integrated radio transceiver.  Communicating with the flash will be a Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter which gives me the freedom to place the flash just about anywhere I want without having to worry about cables.  At the business end of the flash we'll attach a Westcott Micro Apollo using an Opteka CL-1 Clinch Band.

Westcott Micro Apollo fitted onto a Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT

I chose the Micro Apollo because I needed something to enlarge the light source, which softens the light, and since I was going to be walking the State Capitol grounds I needed something small and extremely portable.  Besides, who wants all the attention from the guards or groundskeepers that would surely follow setting up a proper strobe system and full-sized softbox out in a downtown promenade?  This handy mini softbox meets all those requirements.  Not to mention it'll also make those all important catchlights.

Okay, so now we need to solve the problems created by shooting with a bright sun on a cloudless day and we need to do it quickly since our subject will no doubt start to perspire soon.  For this I chose a Lastolite TriGrip 2-stop diffuser.  Lastolite, a subsidiary of Manfrotto, make sturdy, high quality lighting accessories and their products come highly recommended.

Lighting diagram

To solve the unwanted cloudless sky asthetic I put the subject near the tree line so that the Capitol Building was framed over the right shoulder and leaving the trees to consume the negative space over his left.  The trees are themselves "negative space" but are a far more visually pleasing frame filler than uninterrupted blue sky, no matter how stunning that blue is.  Using the diffuser to homogonize and tone down the harshness of the light pouring through the trees I placed the flash with mini softbox inside the shade it created and fired a quick test shot.  Canon's TTL algorithms do a fantastic job of metering for fill but, possibly due to the subject having dark skin and wearing a dark suit, I felt the flash was overcompensating.   I changed the FEC (flash exposure compensation) to -2/3 and tried again.  Perfect.

When lighting outdoors be mindful of the sun's position.  Sometimes, often subconsciously, it helps to sell the authenticity of the light when the flash creates shadows that are similar to the shadows created by the sun on objects elsewhere in the picture.  Of course, as with all photography guidelines, disregard if the art of the shot compels you to.

The cloudless sky wreaked still more havoc in post as there was a strong blue cast on the scalp.  After a quick masking and color fixing the blue cast was eliminated and no one's the wiser.

Canon 5D Mark III, Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX DG HSM, 1/80 sec @ f5.6, ISO 100, -2/3 FEC

In bang-bang fashion, using Canon's new wireless flash technology and some small, lightweight light modifiers, we were able to capture a profile pic worthy of publication and we were able to get it in the can before anyone melted.