Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cats – Samantha and Enzo – High ISO, Low Light, Flash and no Flash – Panasonic G5, Panasonic GX1, Nikon SB26

Mary’s cats are really cute and fun to be around. Sammy is a really furry house cat in white and grey and Enzo is a hairless cat with a back end that looks like a kangaroo, a belly that looks like Jabba the Hutt, and a tail that looks like a rat’s and is full prehensile. In other words, he’s a really cool looking cat.

Like any house, though, the living and dining rooms can be a pretty difficult place to shoot images of creatures that like to move around (kids, cats, dogs :-) … so you have several choices in how to accomplish that. First choice is with or without flash. If you choose to go without, then second choice is extreme ISO or super fast lens. And at night, you have to do both. If, on the other hand, you choose to use flash your choice is "to use the built-in flash, or a shoe mounted flash for those cameras that actually have the hot shoe. My GF3 does not, but the other bodies do.

I’ve now shot the cats during the day and in the evening using all these techniques and I am going to show you what that looks like.

I started shooting the cats during the day time. The bright light coming in from windows helps with your exposures, and prima lenses really help with shutter speeds. My Sigma 19mm 2.8 is a wonderful small lens with a 38mm EFL that can be used as a general street lens. I used this lens to capture numerous images like this one of ENzo, sitting on a dining room chair:

Panasonic G5 & sigma 19mm 2.8   1600iso  f/2.8 1/30

Note that I exposed for the cat, so the windows in the background blew out. I had to shoot at 1600 ISO with the fairly fast lens wide open just to get 1/30s shutter speeds. That’s fairly dark, even though our logarithmic eyes happily enjoy the bright day. The camera is not so excited about it.

Meanwhile, in the living room, Sammy was wandering about and finally settled on the couch for a moment. Sammy’s white fur reflects a lot of light, and she was half the distance from the living room windows, so the exposure was much faster. I could easily have cut the ISO down to 400, but I left it as the G5 looks pretty good at 1600 and I was wandering about into all sorts of different lighting.

panasonic g5 & sigma 19mm 2.8  1600iso  f/2.8  1/200

Later in the evening, with the windows dark now, the television was lighting the area, with a small amount of backlighting from the dimmed fixture in the dining room. The TV tends to change color with the scene, so you get some pretty interesting colors as you shoot. But since there is a black set of couch arms in most of the scenes, setting an accurate white balance is not too difficult.

panasonic g5 & Pentax 50mm 1.4 (MF)   6400iso  f/1.4  1/40

Now that was dark. Shooting the Pentax manual focus lens at f/1.4 at 6400 ISO (the upper limit for anything tolerable from an m4/3 sensor) and still only getting 1/40s. And since the cat was being cute, I was in a rush to capture the image and could not fine tune focus. So I got what I got. Not great, but not terrible. A keeper, but just barely.

Note how Enzo tucks in his tail when standing. He is amazing. And when he rests, as in this next image, he pulls his front legs back in like he is always ready to pounce.

panasonic g5 & pentax 50mm 1.4  6400iso  f/1.4  1/30

That one came out a little soft, so I processed it with a bit of glow, and it is a nice portrait of his resting position. Remember that the room is rather dark and it is nearly impossible to focus at all. The TV is side / back lighting the cat, and yet the image is quite bright because of the superb lens.

Sammy is meanwhile wandering about the house and I this makes it nearly impossible to capture her. After all, I need a moment of pause to get a reasonable focus. This is of course one reason you don’t chase kids or cats with a manual focus lens :-)

But I got one nice image that was unfortunately back lit by the kitchen. Oh well … I had to turn it into a black and white portrait because of the grain and all the different colored lights that her fur was reflecting. A nightmare of nasty color … but I think this grainy portrait is actually quite a nice image of her. And yes, the shutter speed is surprisingly fast, but when walking about and managing all the other parameters while trying to lock focus, changing ISO is not on my mind. Lesson: I probably would have done better here in auto ISO.

panasonic g5 & pentax 50mm 1.4  6400iso  f/1.4  1/200

So sometimes even the fastest lens is just not enough to get nice images.

Enter the flash. I don’t have a through the lens (TTL) flash for the Olympus / Panasonic protocol yet, so I must use a shoe mount external flash from the olden days, when photographers travelled on the backs of small dinosaurs. Here, I shoot myself with the wonderful Nikon SB26 on the GX1, a truly unbalanced setup. I definitely prefer the G5 or GH2 with the big flash, but I wanted to try out the little body with it too.

panasonic gx1 & olympus 45mm 1.8 & nikon sb26   6400iso  f/3.2  1/80

Of course, I am having a severe brain fart while shooting here as I have forgotten to lower the ISO from 6400, a decidedly unnecessary height for shooting with flash :-)

But even though I have got things set up as per the idiot’s guide to shooting flash, I got a few nice images from it. One thing to always remember is that raising ISO is not nearly as bad a thing in good light. You get much more detail at 6400 ISO when there is a lot of light, as shown here:

panasonic gx1 & olympus 45mm 1.8 & nikon sb26   6400iso  f/3.2  1/60

panasonic gx1 & olympus 45mm 1.8 & nikon sb26  6400iso  f/3.2  1/60

I should mention, of course, that you really need to bounce the flash off the ceiling to create a nice wide light area to give you soft shadows. Shooting straight on looks just plain terrible, as everyone knows (but does not always really understand.)

You can see the reflection there in Sammy’s eyes of me with the flash shooting upwards. Cool Smile

Now, in a more lucid moment, I was able to shoot some really beautiful images with the 100-300 zoom lens and the SB26. Remember that flash is the great equalizer. You can substitute a longer lens for more candid images and better flash to subject distances and still get plenty of light, despite the smaller apertures. I shot the SB26 on manual and was rarely above 1/8 power. Lesson: Once you find the right power for nice exposures, just try to stay within the range for that power setting and you can shoot all day without changing any settings.

So here is a candid of Sammy that I am particularly fond of:

panasonic g5 & 100-300 vario mega-ois & nikon 2b26   160iso  f/4.5  1/160

By shooting at 1/160s (max flash sync for Panasonic bodies) and the minimum aperture of f/4.5 at that focal length (272mm EFL) I am able to shut out all ambient light and the colors come out perfectly true. The flash is bright enough to soak the whole area and give me a beautiful 3-dimensional rendition of Sammy’s shape and fur. I even get a nice reflection of her on the floor with a minimal shadow. This is why we bounce the flash.

Enzo is meanwhile across the room, lying around in his relaxed pose on Mary’s rather lovely and incredibly comfortable couch.

panasonic g5 & 100-300 vario mega ois & nikon sb26   160iso  f/4.5  1/160

Note that I turned around and shot the cat with no change to settings. I was close enough to him (furthe rthan I was from Sammy) to get a nice exposure with no discernable noise. Excellent clarity. His fur / hair is so short as to look like grain in the image :-)

Sometimes you run for the camera when something amusing is happening … like this invasion of privacy. You then just hope that the settings and lens are not going to suck in this dark area. I still had the flash on here, which was lucky …

panasonic gx1 & olympus 45mm 1.8 & nikon sb26  160iso  f/1.8  1/60

same as previous exposure because I am using flash

Since I am shooting at 1.8 at this point, the flash power has again been cut dramatically. Which gives me extremely fast recycle times. Basically I can shoot every second if I want to.

The cats do get exasperated at times with my relentless pursuit of their image. Kind of like how stars react to the paparazzi …

panasonic gx1 & olympus 45mm 1.8 & nikon sb26  160iso  f/1.8  1/60

And yes, I am still shooting the same exposure. Cool, eh? This is true pointing and shooting.

Another evening and I have a wee bit more light to work with. So I am shooting at 2500iso with the Pentax 50mm 1.4 manual focus lens because the cats are again being cute.

Sammy is caught eating grapes (no kidding.)

panasonic g5 & pentax 50mm 1.4  2500iso  f/1.4  1/50

And Enzo takes a bath, licking whatever he can, apparently because he can. I call this his “Jabba the Cat” pose. The light from the dining room is on full blast, and throws a nasty shadow as he is quite near that light source. This is the difference between being lit by a point source (direct flash or the bulbs in the ceiling fixture) versus being lit by bounced flash, which of course makes the whole ceiling into a large, soft light source.

panasonic G5 & pentax 50mm 1.4   2500iso  f/1.4  1/40

Another morning and I am playing with the G5 again with the Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens. Enzo is watching Mary and I at breakfast from the top of the couch and I just have to grab a few images.

panasonic g5 & olympus 45mm 1.8  1600iso  f/1.8  1/80

No flash, and even though the room feels bright to us, it is not that bright to the camera. So 1600iso is required to get a decent shutter speed. Here, auto ISO is your friend. I am using silent shutter, so 1600 is the top end of the valid range, and that is very convenient as these sensors are very clean at that speed.

panasonic g5 & olympus 45mm 1.8  1600iso  f/1.8  1/50

Note how getting a bit closer to Enzo dramatically softened the background. Some keys to portraiture are subject distance and controlling the background. You are allowed to turn your subject to shoot from a different angle and control what is behind the subject. It can make all the difference.

Sammy walks over now and demands equal time.

panasonic g5 & olympus 45mm 1.8  1250iso  f/1.8  1/100

Obviously, the white fur reflects more light and the meter has compensated by reducing both ISO and shutter speed. The detail and color in her fur and eyes is remarkable. Note: I had the wrong white balance in the camera and I forgot to correct it for that image, so it is feeling a little blue :-(

Next, she relaxes for a little while at the edge of the living room carpet.

panasonic g5 & olympus 45mm 1.8  1600iso  f/1.8  1/50

Less light at floor level so the iso and shutter both go up (I’m talking shutter exposure, not the actual speed … these are the inverse of one another – faster speed is less exposure.) That lens certainly is capable of dreamy portraits wide open.

And finally, Sammy jumps up onto the arm of the couch and I can shoot the two of them juxtaposed.

panasonic g5 & olympus 45mm 1.8  1600iso  f/1.8  1/100

Well, I hope you enjoyed seeing the cats as much I as enjoyed shooting them. This is an ongoing process and I expect to end up with thousands of images of them :-)

If you like shooting your cats, I suggest that you acquire a fast prime like the 45mm 1.8 for m4/3 or an 85mm 1.8 for your APS-C camera. This opens a lot of nice portraiture opportunities in low light and can make shooting any any light much easier.

I also suggest that you start experimenting with flash, as you can shoot at any time of day and the images will be pretty gorgeous if you shoot bounced.

And finally, here is the link to my cats gallery. You will see it expand over time … CATS