Filters for Portraits by Brandon Kawamura

Every now and again I get asked about filters for portraits. I don't use them often. In fact, my general rule for filters is I don't use them unless I'm planning for extreme conditions, or the filter allows me to do something in camera that I'm not currently equipped to manage in post-processing.

That said, I do tote around a 3-stop X3 Breakthrough neutral density filter and a 6-stop X4 Breakthrough neutral density filter in my gig bag all the time. A neutral density filter reduces the amount of light coming through the lens much like sunglasses. This is not a particularly useful tool when using ambient/continuous light sources because they effectively slow down the shutter speed, potentially resulting in softer or blurrier images; but when used with flashes and strobes, neutral density filters allow photographers the flexibility in manipulating the aperture and thereby the depth of field (in focus/out of focus range) of an image.

Model: Eryn (IG: @giingerrellaa) , Producer: Alan (IG: @alansvee)

Model: Eryn (IG: @giingerrellaa) , Producer: Alan (IG: @alansvee)

When using a flash or a strobe, most modern digital cameras have a maximum shutter speed (also known as sync speed) they're capable of achieving. This generally falls between 1/125s and 1/320s depending on the camera and sensor size. This is because shutter mechanisms use a two-curtain system to expose the sensor. Picture a stage with two curtains from above. One is currently drapped, obscuring the stage. The second one is rolled up at the top. When the director says "action" the obscuring curtain falls to the floor so the audience can now see the stage. When the director yells "cut" the second rolled up curtain drapes to obscure the stage once again. The amount of time between the "action" and "cut" is the shutter speed. In order to simulate shutter speeds faster than the sync speed, cameras drop the "cut" curtain even before the "action" curtain hits the floor. This isn't a problem for continuous light because each part of the sensor sees the light at some point before the exposure is recorded. This is a problem for a flash though, because the burst of the flash gets obscured by the "cut" curtain falling before the flash fires blocking a portion of the stage from the flash's light. Because this mechanic limits a photographer's shutter speed when using flash, photographers often have to compromise on their aperture to reduce the amount of light coming into the camera making for portraits that have less foreground/background blur separation. 

The good news is there are several workarounds to this issue. One solution is to use a flash or strobe that has a high speed sync or hyper sync feature. As a Fujifilm X-T2 photographer, there aren't many off-camera high speed sync or hyper sync flash solutions available. Another solution is to purchase a camera with a mechanical shutter mechanism. The X100 series does have a leaf mechanical shutter, but it does not have the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system. A third solution is to use continuous lights. Continuous lights often don't have the power output I need to get the exposure I'm after, or if they do, they're incredibly hot (like a stove) and difficult to use with light modifiers. They're also difficult to power on location. For these reasons, I opt to use neutral density filters.

In the above photo, the sun is setting to the camera's right, lighting the model's hair. I used a flash with the Magmod maggrip, a ½ color temperature orange (CTO) gel in a maggel sleeve, and the magsphere on a light stand as the main light to the camera's left. With my shutter speed set to 1/250s, my aperture needed to be set in the f/8 range to get the exposure I wanted, but I really wanted an f/1.4 depth of field. To do this, I put the 6-stop neutral density filter on the lens, opened the aperture 5-stops to get it to 1.4, and reduced my shutter speed to 1/125s to get that 6th stop accounted for. And that, in an unusually wordy blog post, is how and why I use neutral density filters on occasion for portrait photography.

Filter Dependent by Brandon Kawamura

When I sold my Lee Filters Sev5n System a month or so ago, I thought little of it. In fact, I was excited to finally upgrade to a 100mm filter system because I would no longer be beholden to a proprietary size. In the "square" filter world, 100mm is the standard by which all brands seem to have a consensus. This includes Cokin, Lee, Nisi, Sirui, Formatt Hitech/Firecrest, Schneider, and Singhray among other brands. As I began my research into which filters would replace my previous ones, industry disrupter Breakthrough announced they were getting into the game with an exciting new Kickstarter project! As a current user of breakthrough's X3/X4 screw-on neutral density filters for my portrait work (which I'll discuss in a future post) I am very excited to see this company expand their offerings into this realm!

Lee Filters Sev5n System

Lee Filters Sev5n System

Needless to say, I made a sizable investment in this campaign and will now be filterless for my landscapes till the August anticipated delivery date if all things go according to plan. Breakthrough's filters will be the first tempered glass neutral density and graduated neutral density filters on the market. They're using the industry leading B270 Schott German optical glass coated with MRC/Nanotech formulas from the company, making them resistant to flaring and easy to clean in the field. My biggest frustrations with the previous system aside from being a proprietary size, were the difficulty in removing the sea spray on them in the field between shots, the noticeable color casts with select neutral density and graduated neutral density filters, the constant worry about scratching the resin filters, and the vignetting when using wider angled lenses. All that said, they were very good filters that didn't reduce image sharpness or color vibrancy, and the cost of the Sev5n system was VERY reasonable for their quality.

#nofilter

#nofilter

So in the approach to the dog days of summer, I am left uninspired to leave the house to shoot landscape photos. For one, the sun just keeps rising earlier and earlier, and as a non-morning person, waking up to catch the sunrise just gets more difficult each day. Having used filters for the better part of the last few years, I'm having more challenges finding dynamic compositions to shoot. I'm also relatively unskilled in the art of blending exposures in post-processing. The last few reasons in particular mean I should be shooting more so that I can either learn new techniques or work through these issues and create something new.

Morning Adventure by Brandon Kawamura

It's already April. I can't believe how fast the days and months and years go by as of late. I haven't posted as frequently as I'd like. I haven't processed as many photos and sessions as I'd like. I often fall asleep soon after returning home from work, exhausted like my cellphone when it can do nothing but briefly display a battery icon with a sliver of red on its negative end. But yet my heart is full. I have wonderful friends and colleagues who inspire me and help me enjoy my time on this Earth.

I've lived on this island all my life, but I did a thing I have never done before last Saturday. I kayaked out to Mokuli'i Island with Producer/Assistant @alansvee and Model @therealslimcheyed! It was exhilarating, and I already want to do it again.

Like the professional that she is, Chéye arrived early, I forgot to charge my phone and hence woke up with that jolt of adrenaline you get when you know you've overslept. Thankfully, I was only "fashionably late." I packed minimally: that is whatever I could stuff in my Peak Design Everyday Sling (10L) and a cross body bag that contained a speedlight, the Magmod Basic Kit, and a Magshpere which managed to fit nicely into one of Alan's dry bags. Only one of the above photos utilized the light though. With only an hour or so to shoot (due to Chéye and my work schedules), "natural light" was the most efficient use of our time. 

Usually I hedge on the side of slightly over-exposing skin tones because brighter pixels contain more data to process in post, and what's more important than a properly exposed subject. Who cares about the background, right? This go-round, however, I decided to try something different. I protected the right side of the histogram which led to slightly underexposed images. I've recently been inspired by contrasty light and scenes playing a larger role in my portraits and I find that darker exposures play well with hard light. I figured, what better time to showcase scenery then when I've never actually seen these scenes before. I kinda like how this set turned out despite having a few regrets not getting a few shots I should've (like Chéye paddling to and from the island). It's a key part of the story of the morning's adventure that I'm missing. I am grateful to Chéye and Alan for helping me make this happen. Go team!

2nd Shooting by Brandon Kawamura

I think being a second shooter is kinda my jam as a photographer. I like the freedom of being able to pick a spot, and really hone in on one or two compositions much like I do for landscapes without the pressure of having to create a whole set of images. I'm confident in my ability to assist the main photographer as I notice more things without a viewfinder up to my eye. Lastly, I can focus on getting one or two images through my portrait post-processing workflow, which is slow, tedious, and evolving.

My photography buddy, IG: @heyo_kc, invited me as a second shooter to a fun cosplay shoot with IG: @takacosplay as Yato, God of Calamity from the anime "Noragami." These are my images.

taka02wrbw.jpg

Here's to 2017 by Brandon Kawamura

Some call Hawaii a melting pot of culture. As such, we are fortunate enough to celebrate two new years: the Gregorian calendar event that just passed, and the Lunisolar calendar event later this month (January 28, 2017). As someone born between the two, it was quite a shock to me that technically I fall into the Rooster zodiac sign instead of the Dog. Then NASA had to go and recalibrate my sun sign to Sagittarius. It's not that I'm particularly spiritual about these sorts of things, but I do find it fascinating how unsettled I felt when I discovered these facts. How much of what I think I know, I actually don't? Hmm... 2016 was just one of those years. My life has been both enriched and tainted by the events of the past 366 days, but who could ask for anything more? I'm not the hopeful type. I try my best to live in the moment except when the food is served, and I need a moment to photograph it first, haha! 

The turning of a new year is traditionally a time to reflect and to resolve. I can say that I have way too many things that I don't ever use, but I continue to hold on to. Some remind me of a time in my life, and others probably have some sort of monetary value or had some sort of cost that make it difficult for me to part with. Others may be useful at some unspecified point in the future. All I can say is that there is a sum total of too much stuff. I won't commit to one of those declutter challenge things, but I will try to rid myself of something anytime I should acquire something, and spend more resources investing in experiences. One thing I can say is that I start every year with an experience, thanks to dA Crazies. They are my photographer "homies" whom I can always rely on for inspiration, advice, and good times.

Here's to 2017! I have clearly established a pattern of binge and neglect with this blog. I can't promise this year will be any different in that regard.

Stereotypical by Brandon Kawamura

Yes, I admit it. I am that Asian guy that takes photos of food as it is served at restaurants. Why do I do it? I do it because I think food is beautiful. I also do it because my long-term memory needs crutches. Photography helps me remember what I ordered the last time. 

Doraku Dragon Roll 23mm (35mm equivalent), f/4.0, 1/125s, ISO 800 

Doraku Dragon Roll 23mm (35mm equivalent), f/4.0, 1/125s, ISO 800 

In general, I tend to prefer being seated inside the restaurant near a window, but the restaurant was pretty full and they had covered outdoor seating. With the overcast weather, the lighting this day was wonderful for food shots. I find light coming from behind the food to the right or left is what I like as it creates dimension and texture. The sauce pattern on the plate, and its rectangular shape made me think a top-down camera angle would best capture the artful plating.

Doraku Hamachi Carpaccio 23mm (35mm equivalent), f/4.0, 1/125s, ISO 800

Doraku Hamachi Carpaccio 23mm (35mm equivalent), f/4.0, 1/125s, ISO 800

I like the 35mm field of view for a lot of my food shots. For one, I don't have to stand or leave my seat to fit the plate in the frame, I can get relatively close to the subject which makes the subject more appealing to me, and the wider lens keeps more of the subject in focus so I don't have to close the aperture too much.

頂きます!

Firsts by Brandon Kawamura

Speaking of trying something new, I was asked by one of my coworkers if I could photograph her newborn daughter. Despite having ZERO experience with newborns, I said "Sure!" What followed were a lot of messages to my photography pal, Daren, a recent father himself, about how to go about working with newborns.

1. Props! Newborn photographers own LOTS of props. I borrowed many basics, like soft textured rugs, and baskets, and beanbags, and pillows, and wraps, and wood letter blocks, and backdrops, but the best props say a little something about the family.

2. Lights! They can be controversial in the newborn photography space. I was told that flash photography is generally okay. In rare instances, newborns may react to flashes by seizing, which is scary for all parties involved, but this reaction is often a symptom that parents benefit from knowing about early. Armed with this information, I used my flashes for many of the images, and baby Amelia wasn't phased. I approached lighting much like I do with product photography. The baby has soft skin, so I tried diffusing my light more to match. I used reflectors to soften the shadows some too.

3. Timing! The best baby subject is one that is asleep, or at least tired enough not to move. Babies younger than three days are ideal, particularly after they have been fed. Amelia was a week old when I first met her, and she was already capable of unposing herself and wiggling out of wraps.

Doing photo sessions outside of my comfort zone often gives me a bigger appreciation for those who specialize in the genre, and this experience was no different. Clearly I am not a newborn photographer, but I am grateful to Amelia and her lovely family for being my first.

Amelia 56mm, f/2.0, 1/180s, ISO 200

Amelia 56mm, f/2.0, 1/180s, ISO 200

Try Something New by Brandon Kawamura

As I've mentioned in the intro post, there have been a number of shoots I've done that I was unable to address with the blog in its previous incarnation. I'd like to address them in this post and some upcoming posts. 

Somewhat recently, I teamed up with model Lena and assistants Daren and Kato to experiment with a commercial fitness look. I was thinking under-exposed background, over-exposed rim lights, + action shots. It's been a while since I've needed to use the wagon to haul my gear, and even longer since I've used more than one light on a shoot. 

Needless to say, I learned a LOT on this shoot which in general are my second favorite kinds of shoots. I did get images that had things I liked in them, but I didn't get one that nailed what I was going for. Thanks to some much needed constructive criticism from a friend, I now know that location matters for the under-exposed background look I was going for. The less distracting black objects in the background, the better. I decided to pull the shadows up in post-processing to get a look that I appreciate more. I also learned that looking past the camera instead of at the camera in action shots is generally preferred. Also, I can appreciate the speed of the burst of more expensive lighting equipment to freeze motion better, though I'm definitely happier with the camera action-tracking results I got on this shoot than in previous action shoots. I'm also learning to embrace contrasty light sources. Next time I'll certainly consider backgrounds more conducive to the look I'm going for, but I'm always up for trying something new.

Model: @lena_m_fox_jameson_ , 56mm (84mm equivalent), f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 200

Model: @lena_m_fox_jameson_ , 56mm (84mm equivalent), f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 200

Model: @lena_m_fox_jameson_ 56mm (84mm equivalent) f/2 1/180s ISO 200

Model: @lena_m_fox_jameson_ 56mm (84mm equivalent) f/2 1/180s ISO 200

Out of Focus by Brandon Kawamura

It didn't take long to learn a valuable lesson. This past Saturday I teamed up with Sachiyo and Dave to do a maternity/couple/family photo session for Jasmine and David. This was my first visit to the pier, and while I generally don't do portraits with ultra-wide angle lenses, I thought there were several opportunities here to try experimenting with compositions. It wasn't until after the shoot, viewing the photos on my computer that I noticed many of the photos I shot with my ultra-wide angle lens were out of focus. It then dawned on me that I forgot the lens is manual focus only! I nearly always shoot my landscapes in manual focus mode, so it's never been an issue before, but in the heat of the portrait session moment, well, I failed. Thankfully, I didn't use the lens for a majority of the day's photos, and to be honest, I still kinda like some of the out of focus images. Next time, though, I'll remember to focus.

Out of focus Jasmine and David walking down the pier. 12mm (18mm equivalent) f/2, 1/640, ISO 200

Out of focus Jasmine and David walking down the pier. 12mm (18mm equivalent) f/2, 1/640, ISO 200

Hilights 2.0 by Brandon Kawamura

While I'm quite certain no one reads this blog, I miss writing. It's been a while. It's been more than a year, in fact since my last entry was posted. As usual I've fallen behind editing images and I didn't like posting blogs before a project was completed, so I didn't. Instead of falling into the same patterns, HiLights 2.0 will be typed soon after a shoot is completed. It will feature less photos, and instead address more about what I learned from the experience. Without further ado, I present HiLights 2.0.

Sunrise at Baby Maks a while back with the #REWGroupies

Sunrise at Baby Maks a while back with the #REWGroupies